Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mostly Food, once again ...

I would really love to be able to lie to you and say it really is as beautiful as this, but I learnt when little that Lying Is Bad, and I just can't bring myself to do it. To tell the truth, it's absolutely grot. Pissed down yesterday, gray and dismal today ... complete and utter b'stard. Still, we've had a good innings, and there's still some nice days to come, but it's definitely autumn. Time to think about pulling the sweaters out, and getting the extra layer for the quilt.

Got a call (was going to say "phone call", but in fact Margo got skyped - which sounds a bit gross, doesn't it?) from Mal the other day. Nothing major, just that to her horror and dismay she really enjoyed her field trip wandering through the bogs around Loch Lomond (cue anguished cries of "Mother! I am becoming a geek! And I love nature, and all small furry creatures!"), and saying that she'll have to get her boat driver's licence (or whatever the technical term for that is - all I know is that boats have, as a general rule, a sharp end and a blunt end, and in theory the sharp end goes at the front) and scuba certification. Some people do get to have interesting lives.

(Update: she was rather hoping to get picked for a year's work-placement scheme 'cos it'd look good on her CV, but they were apparently rather exclusive and out of the thirty or so in her class only six thought it worth applying, of which three got accepted and she wasn't one of them. So now she's looking for a new Project to keep her occupied. I'm sure suggestions would be welcomed.)

Met up with our ex-pat friend Brian for the usual after-market beer and discussed that with him. He's looking at buying an apartment (after all these years), and spontaneously came up with what he thought was a really good idea: namely, that she dedicate her life to paying off his mortgage. He has a point, it's an attractive concept, but I'm not sure she'd see it that way.

As usual, buying an apartment in France is not easy. All was going well for Brian until the point where the computer system worked out that at the end of the mortgage payments he'd be in his 90's (I exaggerate, although not by much) and they won't insure anyone over 75 ... then the branch manager suggested they try a new software system and recalculate the payments. All very well, but this would have had him paying back 10 000€ a month over 2 years - but at least he'd have been insured. Apparently, at this point the manager admitted that he'd not been on the training course for the new program, and in any case had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

Unfortunately, this seems to be about par for the course.

Jerry's notes are getting to be rather good, at least where it concerns the theory and practice of cooking. He managed a 20/20,  a 4/6 and another around 80% for his last practicals, which is not half bad. Although he still feels it would be a good thing if I went out and bought a proper piano for the kitchen: the enormous stove we actually have, although a bloody sight better than what you'd find in your average French kitchen, just doesn't cut it anymore. Whatever, as we were chatting about that and other matters over dinner the other night he suggested (jokingly, I hope) that we should open a restaurant. Call it "La Cimitière", which I personally feel is not a name designed to pull in the punters.

All that rather brings me to the following, which is just to say that I got a few wails about how I put up all these photos of food and sometimes forget to accompany them with recipes. Which I can see could be frustrating. So here goes - those of you who've no interest in such things can stop reading now and resume a useful life.

First off, for the grape flan, start with a pie dish. I used to use one with a removable base but gave that up a long time ago when I discovered that vast quantities of liquid would invariably leak out and caramelise all over the floor of the oven. Not a good idea. Anyway, line the dish with standard short pastry and cover that with grapes - a mix of red and white, or whatever you happen to have to hand. Then make the frangipane cream: beat two eggs with about 80gm of sugar until it starts to whiten, then add anywhere from 3tbsp to a half-cup of powdered almonds (depending on your tolerance for them - personally I'll take as much as I can get). Still beating, add 10cl of thick cream, and I personally add a drop or two of lemon oil (available from most Arab grocers around here) on occasion. Pour that over the grapes and bake at about 220° for about 20 minutes, then check on it.

The little buggers render quite a lot of juice as they cook, so you will probably find the pie dish awash (but at least it's not all over the oven floor), at which point you can either try (and if you're like me, fail dismally) to drain it carefully off, or just leave it for another 20 minutes with some tinfoil over the top: it'll finish by going syrupy and then turning to caramel. Which has to be good. But just a word of warning: resist the urge to eat it straight out of the oven, because the grapes will be little boiling spheres and it will be extremely painful.

As for the feuilleté au saumon, that's rather a fancy name for a salmon loaf. Start with some flaky pastry, which you may make yourself if you wish (personally, I can't imagine why you would, but that's not really my affair) and two healthy salmon fillets, minimum 20cm long and 2cm thick. In a bowl, mix together as much sour cream as you think you're likely to need with finely chopped spring onion, chives, paprika, dill ... whatever.

Spread a layer of that, fillet-sized, on the pastry and place a fillet on top: then spread the fillet with the rest of the cream and stick the second fillet on top of that. Then fold the pastry over to enclose the fish and seal it well, flip it onto a baking tray (or oven-going porcelain serving dish is easier) seal-side down and brush with egg-wash. Then bake it - about 30 minutes should be plenty.

You can use phyllo instead of flaky pastry, and that's rather yummy too: in that case I personally, having buttered a sheet of phyllo, sprinkle it with a bit of paprika, salt and maybe some herbes de provence before laying the next sheet on top. Might be overkill, but I like it.

And as for petits pois à la française, that's so simple that I don't even think of it as a recipe, really. It's also a bloody good way to add flavour to frozen peas, assuming that - like me - you can't be arsed shelling the fresh article. (Yes, I have done that, when I was but a bratling, and I have done it once, a couple of years back, one time they looked so nice at the market, but quite frankly I can't see the entertainment value in it.)

Anyway, take the required quantity of frozen peas and stick them in a saucepan with a lump of sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and the bare minimum of water, and bring to the boil. While this is going on, chop slice or tear into teeny bits half a dozen fat fresh juicy lettuce leaves, and make up a bit of beurre manié, by blending a heaped teaspoon of butter with a tablespoon of flour. Once the peas are boiling turn down the heat and add the lettuce and a chopped spring onion: when the lettuce is limp start to stir in the beurre manié little by little. (The purpose of this is to thicken without leaving huge lumps of uncooked flour, which are not only unaesthetic but downright unpleasant.). Then stir in cream or sour cream, leave to simmer for ten minutes or so, and serve to applause with chopped parsley.

Finally, the croquettes de porc are nowt but glorified meatballs, really. You start with about 500gm of minced pork and, if you happen to have some, about 150gm of bacon is good. If you have the bacon, fry it up until it's crispy, then cut or shatter it into small bits and set it aside. Then soften a chopped shallot in the fat and put that aside too.

Now take a largeish bowl and stick half a cup of breadcrumbs in it - fresh preferably, but dried packet stuff will do the trick - and add a slosh of milk: leave them to soak it up and then add an egg yolk and half a glass of white wine, stir the lot together and then fling in the mince, the bacon, the shallots and whatever herbs take your fancy. And now, roll your sleeves up and stick your fingers in and mix the whole lot thoroughly. This is messy, but fun.

Put that aside for a bit - you've had enough wild pleasure for the moment - slice an onion and put that in the pan over a very gentle heat, just so it goes golden, and whilst that's happening beat the egg white (you didn't chuck it out, I assume) until really stiff and try your best to fold it gently into the meat mixture. While you're at it, halve half a dozen baby potatoes and drink some of the wine.

At this point, you should turn the heat up a bit and make your meatballs. My original recipe calls for taking large spoonfuls of the mixture and rolling them in flour or breadcrumbs, but my fingers always get disgustingly filthy so I just unmould spoonfuls of the stuff directly into the frying pan. Turn them from time to time until they're golden all over, then add another half glass of white, a bit of beef stock and some garlic - bring that to a simmer, stick in the halved potatoes, cover and let cook for half an hour. At the end of which time the liquid should have reduced to a decent gravy, and all you need is a good green salad to go with it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New and useful phrases ...

How's this for a euphemism - from El Reg, of course - "furry front bottom". As in "Lindsay Lohan allegedly tried to smuggle bolivian marching powder into the country in her furry front bottom." Think about it, but please don't hit me, I didn't do it. These are the people who came up with "chesticles", so I suppose you can expect no better.

I see I forgot to mention that we of the street are plotting rebellion - or at least a sternly-worded letter to the council. The mairie has given planning permission for two (admittedly smallish) apartment blocks to be built in the street, and whilst we're not actually nimbys as such there are a few points that we think they might have overlooked in their rush to get their hands on the developer's cash. Like what are they going to do to ensure that we don't have 40 extra cars a day whipping up (and, illegally, down) the street every day, have they thought of all the kids that walk up every day on the road (for there are no footpaths, too narrow), and what in hell do they mean by planning to tear down and not replace the old drystone walls up at the top? So Saturday afternoon we had a little meeting amongst ourselves - much to my surprise with no alcoholic lubrication, and no faffling about. I doubt much will come of it, but at least we'll have had a go.

Finally got around to ordering a new laptop: the old Inspiron is still going strong but is definitely a bit crufty these days, and on top of it the battery gave up on me the other day, so I thought it was about time to bite the bullet. So I managed to find another Dell, with a 17" screen and a decent CPU for €600 all up, which isn't too bad at all. Once I've got everything transferred over and I'm sure that it all works, I'll nuke the old one from orbit and hand it over to Malyon to use as a doorstop or whatever. What did surprise me a bit was the route the new one took to get to me (thanks, UPS tracking services). Left Shanghai, transited by Incheon, then Almaty (yes, that's the capital of Kazakhstan), Warsaw, Köln, Lyon, Annecy and finally here. It'd make a great collection of stamps in your passport. (Having now actually held the thing in my hands, I'd like to point out that it's frikkin' enormous. That 17" screen has to go somewhere.)

Much to my dismay the microwave chose last night (and five months out of guarantee, bloody typical) to give up the ghost. The really annoying thing is that the convection and grill and all still work: just the magnetron's dead and that, of course, is what we use the most. (Not entirely true. the really annoying part was that I wanted to reheat my dinner in it. And I'll thank you to refrain from bad jokes about how that particular prospect caused it to commit suicide ...) But it will piss me off me intensely to chuck it, as it's perfectly functional provided you don't want to reheat a cup of coffee in a hurry. Perhaps I should go get a quote for fixing it - but something tells me it'll be way over the magic 30% threshold  at which you replace rather than repair.

And on top of that, woke up this morning to find it grey, dismal and damp. Not cold, not yet (yay!) but definitely autumn. Leaves are starting to turn gold and drop off: can't even lie in the hammock anymore for fear of suffocating under a heap of the things. A great shame.

Weather which, sadly, finished by putting paid to our picnic. Saturday dawned a bit cloudy, but who cares about a bit of cloud ... then it started to close in and by 11:30 it was, quite frankly, pissing down. And not even I am ready to picnic in that sort of weather. So we ate inside instead, which is not at all the same thing, but needs must ... still, I can tell you that a decent Côtes du Rhône is quite capable of standing up to lemon-marinated chicken.

And although I say so myself, the little tarte aux peches de vigne wasn't half bad either. And the left-over croquettes de porc from Friday night that I took along, knowing full well that Jeremy wouldn't eat them (for some strange reason he doesn't really like them, and on top of that he cordially detests reheated stuff) disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. On the other hand, I should definitely have made more sauce to go with them. It's nothing short of amazing just how much sauce an 18-year old with a wodge of baguette can mop up. Never ceases to surprise me, anyway.

Thanks, by the way, to Julianne for pointing out to me the existence of the Scoop article on the Christchurch Reconstruction And Abrogation of Parliamentary Democracy Omnibus Bill. Nice to see that even if your elected representatives can push through a complete dog's breakfast like that, unanimously (if I got that correctly) and with little or no discussion, you are still - for the time being at least - allowed to take the piss. Anyone else remember that quaint old film, "Sleeping Dogs"?

Whatever, I can hardly criticize: we've chosen to live in an ungovernable country (according to de Gaulle, anyway: something to do with having more cheeses than days in the year) currently reigned presided over by an out-of-touch, hyper-sensitive paranoid dwarf.

So as it dawned bright and sunny I thought I'd go and do something typically French (no, not rioting or demonstrating, no-one does that on a weekend for the simple reasons that no-one else would notice and anyway you wouldn't get paid for it) and go for a Sunday walk. With camera. Hence the photos, just making the point that even if I complain occasionally, the weather's still not too bad. So what's one rained-out picnic?

And in any case, out of sheer spite we decided to have dinner last night, instead. Finding that I still had some phyllo in the fridge I decided to get sort of creative and made some little pastry packets (they'd be called aumonières or mendiants over here, after the little alms-giving purses they're supposed to resemble) stuffed with a round of goat's cheese and - in a stroke of genius - half a date.

Another thing that I have discovered can be done with phyllo is to place three or four layers (suitably cut to size, of course) atop small tartlet moulds  and bake them blind for ten minutes or so, until they go golden and crispy, after which you can press them into service as bowls for serving - let's say - petis pois à la française.

Which go quite well with a pâte feuilleté au saumon (which is kind of like a coulibiac, but a damn sight quicker to prepare and does not involve hunting down dried sturgeon marrow), just as well really as I didn't have enough lettuce to make salad for three. Especially given the vast quantities of the stuff Sophie will put away given a chance.

They still haven't started the vendange around here - god alone knows what they're waiting for - but on the bright side the vines are still covered in great clusters of grapes. So I wandered down the road a bit as dusk (the French say crepuscule. Always sounded like a skin disease to me) fell, trying not to look too conspicuous with scissors poking out of my hip pocket and a bright yellow plastic bag in one hand, to see if I couldn't find some muscat and a bit of chasselas.

Alright, had I headed home with three barrels of grapes I can see that someone might have had a right to be upset, but four measly bunches is hardly going to make a difference. And a tarte frangipane aux raisins is just so bloody delicious, it would've been criminal not to have made it.

And that was the week that was. So what's it like on the other side?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Still waiting ...

Another week down the tubes, and it's still beautiful weather - despite the past track record of absolutely foul stuff for the rentrée. A bit nippy in the mornings - down to 14° or so - but still fine enough in the afternoons for me to think wistfully of picnics. Perhaps up at Montbenoit if it stays fine - but I'd better make sure they haven't put the cows in the paddock first - or perhaps up above Cruet. Somewhere green, with a view.

In fact, I actually wandered off up to Montbenoit last weekend - partly looking for blackberries (too soon, unfortunately), partly checking out picnic spots, but mainly for a bit of exercise. Rather to my surprise I ran into a guy I used to work with, back in the dim distant past when I was at Miqro: Jean-Luc, known as "Hashish" to more or less all and sundry.

It meant I got a bit less exercise than I'd intended, and rather more sitting out in the sun catching up. Still don't know why he has this bloody diabolical garden gnome, though. The thing looks definitely psychotic to me.

Jerry, being now 16, has an official girlfriend, with whom he seems to spend most of his time when he's here - which means that most of the time, he isn't actually here as such. In body, perhaps, but his mind is definitely elsewhere. On the other hand, it has definitely sharpened his senses. Whereas before, when the phone rang you could wait all day for him to pick it up, even after a lung-bursting bellow up the stairs ("Couldn't hear it ringing over the music" he would explain), it's now off the hook in about thirty seconds. Amazing.

Margo has the big show up in Alsace this week: the Carrefour Européen du Patchwork at Ste Marie aux Mines. She heads off on Wednesday and returns some time Sunday, which means I'll be once more alone with our mental cripple of a dog and, from Friday night, Jeremy. (Strike Jerry out - see above. He'll probably present himself at meal-times, mind you.) Perhaps I shall make a nuisance of myself, and invite myself out to dinner.

Sophie's sister, Caroline, had her 40-mumbleth birthday on the 11th, which she combined with a cremaillère (which is a house-warming party: had something to do with putting up shelves originally) for the apartment she's bought in Aix. We got invited and duly toddled along that evening, bearing food as one does, and found ourselves in front of one of those imposing old spa hotels, which the French call un palace. (Yes, that is indeed an English word. Snuck into the language somewhere around 1920, made itself at home with its metaphorical feet up on the sofa, and no-one has as yet summoned up the courage to kick it out.)

I reckon it dates back at least to 1910, might even be older. You see them in the odd English film, or on rue du Rivoli in Paris: huge old piles with delicate iron-work around the balconies and enormous windows out onto them, the name picked out in tiles on the terrace in front of the entrance, the actual foyer taking up most of the ground floor so that you could fit a safari in there (with the animals, including a giraffe should ever that take your fancy), and enough gilt and mirrors around to make Marie Antoinette feel at home.

It's been transformed into apartments, like so many of them. Fair enough, few people these days travel around with a container-load of luggage and it's a damn sight better that knocking them down to be replaced by sterile concrete boxes. Anyway, I really should have taken my camera, if only to get a shot of the lift, which looked old and creaky enough to have been designed by Mr. Otis himself. Next time I will - but before that I'll have to learn how to drive the thing (camera, not lift) on full manual so that I can get the exposures I want.

The only drawback to the place is that it's on one of the streets that goes off from the Thermes (the actual Victorian-era spa centre) and above the Botanical Gardens. Which is not in itself a Bad Thing, I admit, but I should point out that there is a band-stand there, and that every Saturday night it hosts what is called a bal populaire. (The word populaire not meaning "popular", but "of the people" ie working-class, back in the day at any rate.) Which means an eclectic and rather dire mix of accordion music, thoughtfully piped over speakers for the pleasure of all. As I personally would cheerfully consign the instrument and all those that twiddle with it to one of the particularly low-rent districts of Hell, this is not a good thing. But it finishes around midnight, and if you drink enough you can get over it.

Despite the music, and the fact that I had to stay sober (we alternate designated-driver status, you know), it really was rather pleasant - food and conversation, which are two of my four favourite things. (Yes, the other two are indeed what you're thinking, but like I said, I was driving, so drinking at least was out of the question.) I might try getting out next weekend as well: some ambulant theatre troupe is putting on Beckett's "End-game" at Cognin next Saturday night, and if I'm going to watch Beckett I suppose I might as well at least do so in French. We'll see. Depends on how my brain feels.

Pretty soon, I suppose, they're going to start the vendange. The grapes are certainly full enough of sugar - to my unsophisticated tastebuds, anyway. This will, of course, entail the usual convoys of tractors with enormous trailers full of grapes, and the place will reek of alcohol for a week or two. It'll probably be acclaimed as the vintage of the century - yet again. (Actually, shouldn't be too bad. It's been mostly Goldilocks weather, and if it holds off pissing down with rain until the grapes are in the prospects are good.)

And just in case we do not in fact have thunderstorms this Saturday (as Metéo France is gloomily predicting), I really ought to go off and think of something for Sophie and I to eat - who knows, might even have that picnic after all. There's one recipe I've been wanting to try for ages now but never got around to (partly because Margo has zero tolerance for acid): it involves nothing more complicated than quartering and skinning a poussin or two, marinating the dismembered corpses overnight in chopped lemon peel, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce and olive oil and then grilling them, basting regularly. Then you just let them cool down in what's left of the marinade, before serving them cold on a bed of crisp lettuce hearts.

Which sounds good to me, especially with some decent bread and  a goat's cheese, coated in crushed pepper and poivron to follow. On the other hand, I'm none too sure what wine is going to stand up to that much lemon ... just have to wing it, I suppose. A decent rosé, as usual. Cheers!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

End of the Golden Weather ...

Well, summer's coming to its end, and it's back to school for everyone, especially Jeremy. Words like "piss-up" and "brewery" come to mind when I think of the organisational skills of the lycée, given that we got the list of textbooks and cooking gear he was going to need for Monday on the Thursday. We also got his last term's report, which I'm saving to read for one of those moments when my blood pressure gets too low and needs a nudge skywards. A common theme, apparently (and one we've come to know too well) is along the lines of "Jeremy has plenty of ability, but unfortunately refuses to apply it".

Whatever, I did a very quick dive around the market so as to be sure of getting to Tech'Otel (which is where you get professional cooking gear and cutlery and plates and cake moulds and ice-cream churns and knives and ... well, everything, really: it's not actually a very good idea for me to go in there unaccompanied) well before they closed (yes, I did think to check their opening hours on their website) to find, to my great pleasure, that it was in fact closed. Not only closed, but shuttered.

They had not yet woken up to the fact that August ended four days ago, and were still on their summer holidays. Bollocks, as one says.

So after that sad disappointment I finally met up with Bryan at Le Refuge for what I like to think of as a well-deserved demi and a bit of a chat. The staff there are uniformly pleasant, but unfortunately about as speedy as a handicapped sloth, so as a general rule I avoid the place unless I'm actually trying not to drink, but Bryan is sentimentally attached to the place (probably tried to get most of the waitresses into bed, truth to tell) and for once we actually got served in under ten minutes. Which is pretty much a record. (Don't bother going up to the bar, hoping that you'll get served quicker - they spend all their time there rinsing and drying glasses, and occasionally pulling a beer for the odd customer outside that looks as though they're in the throes of actual death by dehydration.)

Anyway, it seems that Christchurch has been more or less flattened. That came as rather a surprise to me, thinking as I did that the South Island was so boring that no self-respecting earthquake would want to go near the place, but it seems I was mistaken.

But then, I suppose it came as a surprise to you too. Perhaps I really ought to look at the news more often. Get a life, or something. Bryan keeps telling me I need to look at this thing called Facebook, but I can't see the point.

On the other side of the place de l'Hôtel de Ville is the Hédiard shop. It's a chain of épiceries-fines; high-class grocers, if you prefer. Harrods, on a smaller scale, and without the pomp and circumstance. Started out in Paris about 160 years ago, and it's still one of the few places around these benighted parts where I've been able to find Angostura bitters. Not that I drink that many pink gins, but it's still nice to have around for those moments when I do. (Bit of a sin to stick it into Bombay Sapphire, mind you.) 

I suppose they leave their crates outside secure in the knowledge that anyone who tried to wander off with one would look a bit conspicuous.

Anyway, for some strange reason we got onto the subject of New Zealand literature. I think it started when Bryan mentioned that he'd just picked up on "True Blood", and said that he reckoned that the actress who plays Sookie was also in "The Piano". I must have looked a bit uncomprehending at that point, and wound up having to justify myself by pointing out that one can only enjoy a limited amount of work by self-pitying tuberculotic authors, and in any case I had to suffer the entire Maurice Gee canon at high school, which seems to me sufficient reason to dislike the whole damn lot.

Whatever, it's been a busy week. Had a couple of phone calls: one from some guy in Aix-en-Provence and another from England;  they both had old Gespac OS-9 systems that'd crashed and burnt and wanted some help. Preferably, my presence. Although I wouldn't have minded spending a day or so in Aix, and could probably have survived deepest Cheshire, I managed to persuade them that there wasn't really that much I could do apart from pointing them in the right direction, which was massive hardware failure. Funny thing about old systems that Just Work (Steve Jobs might have trademarked that, but I don't care): no-one seems to think about them until they - inevitably - fail. And where the hell do you find 68040 processors these days?

And of course, I had to drop Malyon off at Geneva on Tuesday to get back to her beloved. She was a bit pissed off: she's hoped for rather better on her 21st birthday than being knee-deep in a bog  looking for new species of lichen (or something) but that is, apparently, what she'll be doing. Bit of a bummer, let it be admitted. On the other hand, she was quite pleased with the 'A' she got for her last exam.

What we're watching: unfortunately "Burn Notice" wrapped up last week, and there seems to have been some sort of holiday or something in the states which prevented them from screening "Eureka", but at least "Bones" and a few others will be starting up again over the next month or so. Did manage to pick up the last two unaired episodes of "Better Off Ted" too, which was good.  At least there's still "Warehouse 13", which is pure unadulterated silliness - especially the episode where the two agents (one male, one female) swap bodies. And there's a rather fun British cop series called "Vexed" which I'd recommend, and we just watched the first two episodes of some new Aussie series, "Spirited", which might be worth following. Dentist leaves prat husband and moves into an apartment which just happens to be haunted by an English punk rocker. Not too bad really, and worth it just for the accents. On the other hand, I tried watching "Covert Affairs", but it gave my brain boils. I could not, in all honesty, advise watching that.

Tomorrow's Sunday, and although Margo has to get up early(ish) to head off to the Q'ara B'ara (think A&P show) at Montmelian I have other plans, which involve lying in late before heading off to get a decent baguette and maybe a pain au chocolat aux amandes for a nice leisurely breakfast out on the terrace. So I'd better start getting some practice for the lying-in part.