Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Right Excellent Discourse on Stuff ...

Thursday night and right on time, a month before Christmas, the first little white flakes are falling from the sky: destined, in our case, to land on the decking where they will melt or, if they're lucky enough to survive until morning, the dog will piddle on them.  Don't know which is worse, really. Those of you who enjoy a decent climate probably have no idea just how depressing this is: the last nail in the coffin of the year, a taste to come of life when the sun gutters and goes out and we all sit huddled in our thermal underwear around a smoky candle waiting for the sabre-toothed tigers to come back.

On reflection that's perhaps a little gloomy, but I really could do with some of that global warming stuff they've been promising us. It's not as though snow's any good to anyone, it just plops sullenly down the back of your collar, makes you cold and wet, and generally plays hell with traffic. Whatever, we're up for three months of it now, and there's not much I can do about it.

On the bright side, it does encourage winter cooking. I actually thought longingly of a decent soupe à l'oignon, which is a rare occurence, but then Margo has a pathological hatred of soups and in any case there are only three onions in the house (must get some more at the market on Saturday) which is not really enough to do a decent job. There's no bread either, and a toasted slice of baguette laden with cheese is a must for floating on onion soup. Which goes some way to explaining why we're having tandoori chicken tonight.

And then Jeremy (and Malyon, when she turns up with Tony in tow) will require fondue, and raclette, and tartiflette. All of which I personally find a bit suffocatingly heavy, as they're 95% melted cheese, and about as subtle about it as a blow to the head with a sledeghammer. Still, maybe I'll be able to get away with a choucroute and perhaps a cassoulet or two - that would be nice. Have to invite friends over, of course: I still haven't learnt how to make either in quantities sufficient for fewer than 8 people. Not that that stops me.

Of course this morning, just to piss me off on a Saturday, it snowed some more. And for some reason the snow-ploughs wanted to stay snugly tucked up inside in the warm, because they certainly weren't out when Jerry and I left for Chambéry at 9:00 am. First snowfall of the year and all of a sudden everyone forgets how to drive on the stuff: I mean I'm quite willing to admit that I get a bit tense, especially when overtaking, but there's no point in going all to pieces, for god's sake! There were a couple of cars in the ditch on the little stretch of road down below us, and one ahead of me with its tyres vainly spinning as it slid sideways ...

Not that Chambéry was much better. The autoroute hadn't been déneigée either, and best perhaps not to speak of the state of the VRU ... still, we got through to Carrefour with only a few brown-pants moments on the odd roundabout, and on the upside both the supermarkets and the market itself were pretty much deserted, with only the odd brave or foolhardy soul (which does that make me, I wonder) doing the rounds.

It's an odd thing, but where we (or more perhaps our colonist cousins) would describe something as a lemon, the French call it a turnip. Un véritable navet d'un film to describe something like, say, 2012. (Which was, let it be said, pretty bloody awful.) It's strange because the French actually rather like turnips. Fair enough, especially as they eschew the horticultural-society monsters and prefer them young, the size of golf-balls: still, as far as I'm concerned they'll always be cattle-fodder. I"m doubtless doing injustice to a noble vegetable, but there you are.

I've spoken of them before, and I know you wonder: this is what my little croquettes de porc look like. Guess what we had for lunch? More good comforting winter food. On the "pro" side: no need to wash the frying pan, two adolescents with chunks of baguette will wipe it cleaner than your dishwasher could ever do. Also, you only need two glasses of white wine for the actual recipe, which leaves you a reasonable amount to drink. Before getting on to the rosé. Although it's probably time we stopped pretending that it's still summer, give it away and start hitting the red.

Anyway, Jeremy came with me for a reason: normally he'd still be looking forward to another three hours in bed at the time I leave. But as it happens there was to be a rock concert - at which some of his friends happen to be playing - up at St. Hilaire du Touvet, so I said that if he tagged along and behaved himself I'd take him up after lunch. Of course that was Friday night, and I had most emphatically not counted on the snow. Have I mentioned that St. Hilaire is a little village, at about 1400m altitude up in the Chartreuse, accessible only by little twisty windy decidedly narrow roads, the sort with a cliff-face on one side and a precipice on the other? Thought not.

Oddly enough, and despite Sophie's dire forebodings, it was actually less painful than getting in to Chambéry. By the time we headed up the roads had been cleared, and I left him with the traditional phrase of parents everywhere: "make sure no-one throws up on your sleeping bag, 'cos you're the one who'll be cleaning it and vomit is hell to get out of the zipper teeth". The only grim spot on the horizon was coming back down, when I got stuck behind some old fart in a Kangoo who evidently thought that 50kph was a bit daring. As there was nowhere available to force him off the road, strap him to the bonnet of what I suppose I shall have to call his car and do an impromptu transplant operation, I refrained from eating his liver raw with a plastic teaspoon, and just overtook him at the first opportunity.

I'm sure, as he disappeared rapidly from view in the side mirror, I saw him shaking his fist angrily, doubtless dribbling curses about the "yoof" who've no respect for human life through his dentures.

That cheered me up immensely, so much so that I decided to do a bit of baking whilst I had the oven on for our roast chicken. The excellent David Lebowitz had a recipe for Oatmeal Raisin cookies and suggested that perhaps replacing the raisins with cranberries and white chocolate would be a good idea. I did that and he was, as usual, quite right. Goodnight, all. Happy barbecue, whilst we is freezing in the dark. Don't snigger, it'll be your turn soon enough.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Buggered batteries ...

Well, just when the week looked set to a good start ... of course, after a lovely weekend it had to start raining - heavily - and then I come out of the office to find that the battery's completely dead. Run up the curtain, barely enough juice to light up the inside of the car, and certainly none to do fancy things like lock or unlock it. So here I am, sitting in the office, waiting for the nice breakdown man to come along and fix me up.

Which is not really the way I'd planned on spending the start of the evening, should you be wondering.

An hour and a half later and the guy still hasn't turned up, so I ring back the insurance to see what the hell is going on and find out, to my dismay, that I appear to have slipped through the cracks. So they've promised that this time someone really will come, and it shouldn't be more than half an hour. I bloody well hope so, this is getting boring. And let's face it, there's little more boring than hanging around in the rain in a carpark, waiting for someone to turn up and replace your battery.

'Tis already, it would seem, the season to be merry. At least, that's what I deduce from the lorry-loads of slaughtered pine-trees, neatly wrapped in their plastic netting, going along the autoroutes. Seems a bit early to me - I mean, there are still four weeks to go, does anyone really expect the poor things not to be half-bald by the time Christmas day comes around? Or do they stick the poor things in a nitrogen atmosphere in a cold store until closer to the day? That would be pretty sad, if true. Especially if, when they open the doors, Santa and a couple of elves are found there lying stiff and frozen. Never trust a reindeer.

Isn't it just amazing what you can do with left-over pumpkin and pork? I only ask because we had vasty quantities of both floating around the other day (pumpkin is, as far as Jeremy is concerned, an insect - despite the distinct lack of legs - and thus classed as inedible unless really desperate) and so the pork got thickly sliced, the pumpkin mashed up with some decent curry, corn kernels, sour cream and cubes of roast potatoes and then fried, and the whole lot plonked on the table with some carottes vichy and a few shy bits of broccoli peeking out.

This, on the other hand, is not left-over (well, just enough left over for breakfast, to be honest): it is in fact a favourite, burgundy apple tart. Although it doesn't look much like any normal person's idea of a tart, and personally I'm happier referring to it as apple cake: whatever, simple and delicious. (By the way, don't get your hopes up. The "burgundy" in the name refers to its place of origin, not its contents. But as there's nothing time-critical going on when you're making it, feel free to empty a bottle whilst doing so, should you feel that way inclined.)

When I say simple ... take two eggs, break into a bowl with around 3/4 cup of sugar, and use your trusty electric beater to beat shit out of it until thick and creamy. Then add 3/4 cup of flour, 15cl of cream (or sour cream, if you like) and, if you have some, a drop or two of lemon oil - beat again till well mixed. Now stick in something like 25gm of butter, in small dice, and beat hell out of that too.

It's called apple cake/whatever for a good reason: you should now stir in two apples, peeled, cored and cut into slices or diced - your preference - and a handful of raisins, if that rocks your boat. I like 'em, Margo doesn't - whatever. If you didn't have lemon oil, some finely chopped or grated lemon peel would be a good idea too. Then slosh the whole lot into a buttered and sugared rectangular mould, bake till done (about 30 minutes, in my oven anyway), unmould and enjoy. With a good crème anglaise would be nice, and I quite like a dollop of redcurrant jelly. But maybe that's just me.

If you happen to have some left the next morning, you could probably try cutting it into half-inch slices, frying it in a little butter and sprinkling with sugar. I'm not inciting you to do that, just saying it's possible ...

Bloody shame it's Friday: dawned bright and sunny (a bit crisp, mind you). Seems a shame to waste it brushing up on cgi scripting for the SNCF ... which leads me inevitably to a few reflections.

I distinctly remember someone once telling me that a friend of his brother had it on good authority that one fine day Linus Torvalds was in the toilet reading and the idea of cloning UNIX came to him, out of the blue. After three hours and quite a bit of toilet paper he'd got the basic architecture sketched out, and over the following month of weekends he and a couple of hard-core coder friends got 350,000 lines of code and the first alpha version of the Linux 1.0.0 kernel ready. The longest part was picking the name.

And I really do have to ask myself why he bothered. Why go out of your way to duplicate the feel and functionality of a bloated, baroque system with everything in it but the kitchen sink? Come to that, if you look carefully you'll probably find that that's snuck its way in there too, lurking behind the purple beachballs with the Hawaiian motif, just over beside the drivers for the ICL punched-card readers. (Reminds me: anyone seen the remake of Hawaii 5-0? We really like it.)

I mean, there is still support built-in for terminals that communicate over string or knitted twine, using different types of knots to represent ASCII characters. And even a fervent admirer would have to admit that the "user-friendly" interface and the "intuitive" commands are a bit arcane.

Why not put all that undoubted talent into developing something genuinely innovative and useful? Like, say, bread that never fell buttered-side down? Or a genetically engineered cat that brought you coffee in the mornings, or at least didn't try to kill you in various subtle ways during the day? Or an improved version of the black death that only infects people who wander along yammering the petty details of their sad lives into their Bluetooth headsets? (I mean, some of these things I do not want to know. I do not care what you said/he said, nor do I wish to know that you've just bought some new knickers, in a fetching shade of salmon-pink. But I digress.)

Something that improves the general lot of humanity (or at least those that don't have Bluetooth headsets)? But no, geeks don't think like that, so we got something that, as Bismarck remarked, is not really for the faint-hearted to look at. (He was talking about lawmaking, I admit, so I may have taken him out of context, but what the hell.)

Which in turn reminds me that I saw an article today blaming poor old Tim Berners-Lee (aka "Greatest Living Briton"™) for all the ills of the internet - spam, DDOS, DNS poisoning, you name it - due to his lack of concern, some 20 years ago, for security. Never mind that the poor bugger's hardly responsible for all that, all he ever got up to was developing the HTTP protocol while he was supposed to be particle-bothering. Still, I suppose that as da intartubez was originally a British invention - before DARPA got their famously swivel-eyed pointy heads around it - he could be held to share some of the guilt by association.

Having finished raving - I spotted some frozen prawns at the supermarket today (what with Christmas coming up, 'tis definitely the season to be buying foie gras and other such things if you're into that - won't even have to take out a second mortgage to pay for it), so guess what Sophie and I had for lunch? First you fry the little sods up in butter until they go nice and pink, as god intended them to be, then you flambé the poor things (Scotch is good), then you pour in a glass of white mixed with a decent dose of olive oil, heaps of smashed garlic and some chopped parsley, let that reduce rapidly (bit of a sod really, it goes too fast to be able to drink a great deal whilst it's going on), then you eat it.

Messily, I must admit. Because unlike Sophie, I have never learnt the fine art of shelling prawns with a knife and fork, and even after watching her with some admiration I've still no great desire to learn. Prefer fingers.

And then, to follow, Sophie brought out a surprise: some aged Cheddar, bought at Lidl. At least 18 months old (so it's not as though it's juvenile murder), little flakes of salt in it - absolutely scrumptious. Do you know how long it's been since I had decent Cheddar? No, thought not.

Then, for reasons which escape me, Lucas asked what, in my long and varied career, were my culinary catastrophes. I'm sure you lot can think of some, back when I was just starting to teach myself how to cook (still, nothing, I hope, as gross as Browneye Puddding), but let it be admitted I myself can think of a couple. The accidental cassoulet pizza was, let's face it, an unmitigated disaster, and  then there was the time I roasted a chicken ... nothing wrong with that in itself, but I'd neglected to read the fine print. It was, of course, a boiling fowl, and it had obviously been getting quite a bit of exercise in the last few decades of its life.

And I can still remember Ian and Marie's wedding.

There was to be a mechoui - a spit-roasted sheep - and the general consensus was that it would be a good idea to stuff the poor thing (adding insult to injury) before the event. So as Ian had collected a number of mushrooms the night before, I bravely undertook to do the deed using them as a base. That may have been, in retrospect, a mistake. Don't get me wrong, it smelt wonderful. And the first five minutes of eating it were fine. But afterwards ... oddly enough, there were still some that went back for seconds. They may have been the ones scraping the stuffing onto the ground, don't know, I was having a lie-down.

But right now, seeing as Jeremy has buggered off to spend the night at Montmelian at a friend's place, I'm off to make dinner for two: a teeny roast chicken on garlic cloves, brussels sprouts (yes, Virginia, I do like those), and a sort of linzertorte to follow. Goodnight, all: mind how you go.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Another one of those blonde moments ...

Well, I suppose you've got the barbecues out of hibernation and are spending your weekends out on the beach doing your bit to reduce marine diversity and encourage grape-growing: over here in Ole Yurrup we is freezing our arses off (slight exaggeration, it hasn't actually got below zero yet except for one morning a few weeks ago, and I think that was a mistake) in the rain.

I see that I completely forgot to mention something: having fallen upon the link in David Lebowitz's excellent blog (the link's over there somewhere on the right) I thought I'd go have a look for myself at the catalogue of Librarie Gastéréa, in Lausanne, where I came upon this item:

BAUDRICOURT (Le Sire de) Manuel culinaire aphrodisiaque à l'usage des adultes des deux sexes / Paris, Edition photographique, s. d. [vers 1900].
In-12, demi-maroquin olive, dos lisse orné de filets dorés, 124 pp.
EDITION ORIGINALE RARE de ce recueil de 130 recettes "choisies parmi les plus opérantes". Illustrations "galantes" dans le texte. 

So, a cookbook dedicated to supposedly extremely effective aphrodisiac foods, for the use of either sex. (The cookbook, that is.) With naughty pictures. Sounds interesting, but I'm not really ready to shell out 570€ for a bit of soft-core food porn. But it would be nice to have on the shelves, snuggled up next to Escoffier. If anyone wants to get me a belated birthday present ...

Well, today turned out rather better than expected: foggy in the morning, as you can see, but not really too bad, all things considered. I can handle days like that. I should probably say that the day started out well, because there were some (admittedly minor) issues.

All of which were my fault, and totally unrelated to women drivers or anything (and I'm not saying that just to get Margo's hand off my windpipe, honest).

Actually, some were not in fact my fault: like, the midday rosé wasn't perfectly chilled because when I turned up at Sophie's she was out finishing off her shopping and both the brats were apparently sleeping the sleep of the dead behind locked doors, so the rosé had to stay put in the boot of the car rather than go into the freezer for ten minutes, as god intended.

Still, the devil finds work for idle hands, as they say, and without risking my neck too much I managed to pluck the last of the figs.

So anyway, Sophie had to go off and assist (or at least be present) at the flinging of the ashes of an uncle of her soon-to-be ex-husband (the flinging in question being into the Chéran, and it just might explain the taste of the mountain trout), which left me with a whole afternoon free in which to look like an idiot. Which, rising to the challenge, I did not fail to do.

It really was quite simple:  I took off with the intention of taking some photos of the Lac Noir, which is a little lake lost somewhere in the masses of rubble on the flanks of the Granier. So I headed off up the départmentale towards the Col du Granier, and when I got there realised that I'd probably missed the turnoff. What the hell, it was a lovely day, so I thought I'd go back down towards Chapareillan and get some photos that way as well.

How to feel like a prat ...
That's all well and good, but I must have been in brilliant blonde form when I parked (briefly, I thought) on one of the little routes forestières and somehow failed to notice that I'd cunningly backed up so that the right rear wheel was hanging in the air over a metre-deep pit of icy water, and both front wheels sitting in nice greasy mud.

Once Margo had stopped sniggering she kindly agreed to come along and tow me out, which was probably not something she'd planned on doing on her birthday. On the bright side, I now know how to fit the tow-hook onto my car.

The tow-hook lives in the little toolkit which nestles in the spare tyre, in the boot. Which was, of course, still full with that morning's shopping, including ten bottles of wine. Have I mentioned that the arse-end of the car was dangling over a deep pool of water? Yeah, I thought so. Clever old me.

 That was not, unfortunately, the end of it. Having, as one does, some rolled pork shoulder and some apples I decided to roast the one and make tarte Tatin with the other for that night's dinner. As I've said before, I make the caramel directly in the pie dish (helps to use a Pyrex one, I find) and then sprinkle cinnamon over that when it's cooled down a bit.

Fair enough, but I have two little jars of cinnamon in the spice cupboard, one of which contains cinnamon and the other, prominently marked "Not cinnamon", in fact contains cayenne pepper. Luckily I hadn't really got into the spirit of scattering by the time I came to my wits.

Actually, the combination isn't all that bad. The chili, as is its wont, brings out some of the flavours that would otherwise have stood shyly on the sidelines, waiting for a date ... that's why you'll sometimes find the stuff in expensive chocolate. It's still not really something I'd recommend you do on a regular basis, not unless you have a bloody good idea about your chili tolerance.

It must have been a dull week on the El Reg Innuendo and Triple Entendre desk, 'cos they decided to enliven my Friday with the following headlines (just click to get to the articles):

"Crab Shack mock cock cop attack shock"

and the delightfully ambiguous

"Pussy-slurping: You think you understand it but you don't" or, if you prefer, "Boffins in cataclysmic lingual robotics breakthrough". Be warned, there is actually some science in there. 

Anyway, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that it's still alarmingly fine and sunny to go off to the office and get a bit of paperwork done in peace and quiet. Let no-one say that the French fiscal administration is behind the times: I've actually signed up, online, to file our monthly GST declarations via the intertubes. Now once I've printed out the PDF, signed it, posted it, and got the acknowledgement back (probably in a month or two), I will be able to do just that ...

And by the way, turns out I may have been a bit mean-spirited suggesting that Tony was trying his best to be unable to come over. So it seems we will be meeting him at Christmas after all, when Mal turns up with him in tow. A brave lad.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Start thinking about choucroute ...

And once more did they hie them to the lair of that which is called Yog Sothoth, Eater of Souls, Destroyer Of Worlds, and That Which Chews The Slippers. And there did they propitiate it as is prescribed in the dark works (but the TV guide works just as well, if you don't happen to have a copy of the arcane version), and turnèd they the little knob, and lo! the central heating came on again. And a bloody good thing too, for it was starting to get just a little nippy.

Although you wouldn't think it to judge from the weather we've been having recently - up in the 20s yesterday! Can't last - didn't, of course, today was gray, dismal, and there was snow around 1100m. Not a good sign, as far as I'm concerned.

Last weekend of course was All Saints: Toussaint, in these benighted parts. It's that time when absolutely everyone heads off to the cemetary to stick great pots of flowers on top of old Uncle Wossname. If you're cheap, and untroubled by moral scruples, it's also a really good time to pick up some cheap flowers to stick around the house.

I've discovered something else to avoid: pinching the nerve at the base of yer spine. (For some strange reason, the frogs refer to this as the sciatic nerve. I suppose it"s just possible that they know what they're on about.) Whatever, hurts like buggery, and had me hobbling around like an old man for a couple of days. It's not so much the moving, just changing position from prone to upright, and vice versa - made getting into and out of the car a bit delicate. Whatever, I'll remember not to laugh so much next time. (Can't even think how it happened, actually. Just bent down to pick up a piece of wood, and on straightening up - ouch!)

On the bright side, at least the phone and the PC are more or less under control.  The phone works as well as one could expect, and I can even make and receive phone calls with it: the PC does more or less what I want, apart from the occasional hiccup. Like, insisting on recognising a prototype Win CE card as a GPS Camera (whatever that may be), and not letting me debug it. I suppose I can live with that.

Oh, don't try eating these. They're really pretty, I agree, only mildly psychotropic in small doses (and purgative too, I believe), apparently mortal if over-indulged in. Yep, these are ricin seeds. Who'd've believed our old friend Jacques was a closet terrorist, happily cultivating the raw ingredients for insidious weapons of mass destruction? You just can't trust anyone these days.

I suppose it must have been a month or so ago that they started bringing in the grapes: now it's time to start making some serious wine.  You can tell when, like me, you follow a Peugeot van with about a tonne of sugar in it: I'd say around 40 25kg sacks of sugar. Either they've an awful lot of jam to make, or there's a few hectolitres of wine that they feel requires chaptalisation. Personally I'd thought the grapes were sweet enough to not need that: apparently I'm wrong, or maybe they're trying for for "sticky" this year.

As you can probably tell, I've been wandering around Chambéry again, camera in hand.  Off to the Chateau de Boigne to see the trees losing their leaves under a brilliant blue sky, then the usual Saturday lunch with Sophie.

And for once, made it simple. Oeufs pochés Rossini, even simpler than eggs Benedict, and just as nice in my opinion. Still involves poaching eggs, though, so if you're uncomfortable with that you should probably leave the room now. (Really, it's not that difficult. Hell, even I learnt how to do it.)

The traditional recipe calls for croutons: knowing that these are nothing fancier than fried rounds of bread, I'm more than happy to use buttered toasted muffins. Bloody sight easier, and tastes just as good. Anyway, having prepared a bit of sauce béarnaise (add a dose of tomato concentrate/ketchup to it if you want to call it sauce Aurore), toasted the muffins and poached the eggs, just lay the muffins out on a serving dish, stick a good thick slice of foie gras on each and slide an egg on top, and stick them in the oven for five minutes whilst you make the salad.

When that's done, pull the eggs out of the oven, slosh some sauce over the top and serve. Do not expect applause: adolescents apparently don't do that.