Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Country Bumpkin In The Big Smoke ...

A quick trip up to Paris this week - just Thursday and Friday - to see my friends at the SNCF about what they might have in the wings in the way of development, and incidentally squat at Ian and Marie's place for a couple of nights: catch up on news, see my favourite niece, stuff like that. Wednesday turned out beautiful, and the trip up would have been perfect were it not for the fact that the TGV was full to the gunwales with 8-year olds back to Paris from a classe de neige.

(For your information, this where an entire school class or two are exiled from the city to go and find out first-hand that snow is cold, wet and generally miserable. They are escorted, in an attempt to prevent escapes, by at least two teachers and a variable number of parents, all of whom are confirmed alcoholics at the end of a week. For some strange reason the classe de ville, where country brats are sent off to Paris, is not particularly popular.)

So I sipped my rosé and tried to ignore the periodic cries of "Maitresse! Maitresse!" and "Pipi!" or, more ominously, "Je pense que j'ai vomi!". (Which means exactly what you think it does, and exactly how anyone, even an 8 year-old, could be unsure as to whether or not they'd vomited I cannot imagine.)

On the bright side, one of the schoolteachers charged with ecorting the brats back was rather good-looking, which gave me something to contemplate other than the drain-cleaner I was swilling.

It's an odd thing, but there's something almost instantly identifiable about teachers, almost like they're a race apart, or belong to some sort of club. Maybe it's the air of harassed, ignored authority, or the barely suppressed psychotic rage.

Margo always said that it was a good thing they weren't allowed to carry weapons.

Of course, with my usual impeccable timing I arrived at Gare de Lyon at 19:15, just in time for the hellrace from there to Eaubonne: at least there's only one correspondance, and now that I know which quai I need to be on and how many floors up (or down) it is from where I am, at all goes relatively smoothly. Although the day they change things around at Gare du Nord I'll be up shit creek.

And whilst I think of it, you really would think that they'd have plans of the major stations up on their website, wouldn't you? Nothing complicated, just a sort of map of each level, with the quai numbers clearly visible and all the escalators (usually hors service anyway) and stairs marked. Sadly, that seems beyond them.

Thanks to the site I do know that there are 5 boutiques La Brioche Dorée at Gare du Nord should ever I want a coffee and a croissant during the thirty seconds I have to spare whilst looking for the right access to quai 34, and trying to remember whether I want to go by Valmondois (I really do, because otherwise I end up somewhere I do not wish to be) or not: unfortunately I do not know where they are, or at least the website does not tell me.

I'm sure that there's a reason for this other than a lack of imagination and sheer incompetence, but for the life of me I cannot think what it could be.

And much to my surprise the weather is great, even in Paris. (The only downside to Paris, really, is that  I feel greasy all the time, except for the five minutes immediately after having a shower.) If it keeps up I swear I'll try for a picnic lunch on Saturday, up at the tour at Cruet: maybe plaited fillets of sole.

The little preparation required (basically, cutting them into strips and plaiting them) can be done the night before, and the actual cooking part should take no more than ten minutes on the little camping-gaz burner. I suspect the longest part will be reducing the white wine, cream and saffron sauce - and getting the salad ready, of course.

Thursday morning I managed, of course, to get myself temporarily lost on the RER: sheer force of habit got me onto the D line for Maisons-Alfort rather than onto the B line through to St-Michel and change there onto the C to get through toVitry. That cost me five minutes lost time at Chatelet scurrying around to find the B line, which made me twenty minutes later than I should have been.

And could someone please tell my why it is that people think trains are a good place to make love? Take the young couple on the Métro this morning: totally oblivious to all else, he was staring like a landed fish deep into her eyes whilst she idly caressed a thigh with an abstracted air, gazing longingly back into his. Sickening.

Later ... I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, with all the work going on around Paris the TGV was almost an hour late getting me back to Chambéry. Still, what did leave me rather gobsmacked was that  SNCF staff were handing out stamped addressed envelopes at the station so that all I had to do was stick my ticket in it and send it off to get a refund.

Despite it's turning out another wonderful day - must be about 19° out here on the balcony in the sun - both Sophie and Margo are off today so that kind of buggered my picnic plans. (Maybe next weekend. I really do want to do this fish thing.) So it was a leisurely drink with Bryan at Cardinal's, and now I'm idly dreaming of a dinner involving tournedos Rossini and the first asparagus of the season.

I can't recall whether I've told you about those before, but they're amazingly simple and extremely healthy, so you really should know about them. Sad to say no wine is involved at any stage, but that's a poor excuse for not opening a bottle anyway. Especially with the weather so good, I can crack a rosé and pretend that summer's just around the corner.

Rather than April, which tends to have a well-deserved reputation for being - shall we say - changeable.

Anyway, all you have to do is take two good slices of beef fillet, quickly fry them to your liking, place a slice of foie gras atop each one and spoon some sauce béarnaise over. Serve straight away, with asparagus that you've cut into little batonnets and boiled furiously for five minutes in a little water, sugar and about 30gm of butter until it's reduced to a syrupy emulsion, and sprinkled with chopped parsley.

(A variant on this is tournedos Henri IV, which is more or less the same thing only the steak is served on a fried crouton which itself has an fond d'artichaut placed on top. Personally I'd advise you to buy a tin of prepared artichoke hearts, but that's because I can't bear to think of chucking out all the leaves you have to trim off just to get the base - there aren't many things in this world better than pulling the leaves off a boiled artichoke, dipping them in melted butter or béarnaise, and squeezing out the little fleshy morcels at the base of each one between your teeth. If you happen to like that sort of thing,)

The only problem - if you can call it that - is that you are left with a goodly amount of foie gras, which it would be a shame not to eat. How you do this is up to you and I have no objection at all to just spreading the stuff over slices of buttered baguette, but I should also point out that there exists a dish called les délices Landais which merits your attention.

Briefly put, take some veal escalopes and bash them out thinly: cut them into neat, foie gras slice sized bits and then make little foie gras sandwichs with them, pressing the meat together well around the edges. Flour, egg and breadcrumb these (having a hopeless tendency to go overboard, I will mix grated parmesan in with the breadcrumbs, but this is optional), then fry until golden-brown and crispy on both sides. Perfect as an entrée, but do be careful not to make so many that you have to open another tin of foie gras, because then you might well find yourself back at the beginning, with an excess of the stuff on your hands that you have to get rid of, one way or another.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In which I am, once more, Clinically Blonde ...

Glue-sniffing just isn't what it used to be. Not that it ever was, mind you, but still ... Our friend and occasional alcoholic Bryan recently confided that thanks to European regulations governing such things he can no longer get a quick fix of OTC solvents (the glue itself is more of an occupational hazard than anything else, tends to clump once it gets up yer nose and extractiong it when dry is extremely painful - or so he says), and has had to resort to taking up the carpet in his apartment with a heat gun.

Which also has its drawbacks, as apparently it plays merry hell with his knees. And he has sworn that people who actually glue carpet to the floor deserve a hideous death. I'm tempted to agree with him, if only because the people who do that are also the sort to choose fuschia as a colour scheme. But what I really want to know is why he won't let me tear the wallpaper off. It's not as though the walls will come down too ... I think.

The infallible weather-prediction system currently in use around here (to which I suppose I really ought to give a cutely humourous name, like "Ramshackle Hall", or "The Shamblings", or "Please Ask The Bailiffs to Turn Off The Lights") has once again proven its worth. And, of course, its infallibility. For the Nth year in a row the apricot has flowered: so far the temperatures have only plummetted by 10°, but I'm confidently expecting a rain of toads or something in the near future, which should definitely knock the blossoms from the boughs.

(Doesn't have to be toads, although that would be fun. Anything large, preferably gross, and rather improbable would do - pork chops, for instance. Although those I would pick up and put in the freezer.)

Should, by operation of the laws of chance as affected by narrativium, some blossoms survive the hail of batrachians (not that I'm that hopeful), this means that in all likelihood the Empire State Building will fall on the garden, causing the few nearly-ripe fruit to go suddenly rotten with shock. Or it might be an attack of locusts, or flying killer swine, or someone goes down and reads a depressing story to them: quite frankly I no longer care.

Tree buttocks
I really must start dyeing my hair: I seem to be going blonde at the roots. Headed off to the market this morning and got unsuspectingly onto the autoroute to find that most of Belgium seemed to have had the same brilliant idea, so I congratulated myself quietly for having thought to do most of the shopping Friday night as I dived off at St. Baldoph and took the back roads the rest of the way through to the market.

And there, as I drove around in ever-decreasing circles looking for a park, it came to my attention that in the rapid packing of the car before I left, I had totally forgotten to take my wallet. No plastic, no cash, no cheques. And I so did not want to waste another hour heading back home, grabbing the thing, coming back in (nationale or departementale all the way this time, given the state of the traffic, which wasn't getting any better that I could see) ... so cue a couple of rapid phone calls to all of the few friends I still have around Chambéry who might be willing to lend me some cash.

Bryan was off doing a couple of lengths of the lac du Bourget - at any rate he wasn't answering his phone (possibly had some premonition as to why I was calling), Sophie was still asleep at that hour, Pierre was off having Chinese lessons ... just as I was resigning myself to a really annoying wasted morning I remembered Stacey, who was at home and did have some cash to lend me. Saved!

Which was rather good, as it meant I could go off and get some trout for lunch.

It has always been, as the King remarked, a puzzlement that many otherwise intelligent people seem to firmly believe that fish and red wine shall never mix, as though some gastronomic oracle had set the principle in stone. Personally I think that red wine, like a little black dress, goes with anything - especially a little black dress. What then, shall we think of truites à la maconnaise? (Please note the absence of the little squiggly thing under the 'c', which means it is pronounced like a 'k'. Difficult, I know.)

For this little number, you will need as many trout as you have fish-eating guests: I am talking here about Frog-style farmed trout, truite d'elevage, which are about 9" long at best. Assuming that there are six of you, that means six trout, which you should put in a pan (or in the oven, up to you) and poach in a half-bottle of red. (A Maconnais, naturally.)

And when I say "poach", I mean just that: the wine should be barely simmering. Otherwise you'll wind up with fish soup. And don't forget to bring the wine to a rolling boil for five minutes or so to get rid of the alcohol before turning down the heat and putting the fish in, or it will taste bitter. You have been warned.

All that will probably take about 20 minutes: while that's going on, you need to glaze some onions and sauté some mushrooms. Glazed onions requires those teeny pickling onions, about the size of a marble: they are a right pain to peel, I admit. (Nice alternative: use spring onions. Cut the roots off and leave a bit of the green shoots on for colour.) Brown them in a saucepan with butter, then add a dose of beef stock (or wine - white this time, more for you to drink) and a good tbsp of sugar, then let it reduce until it's all syrupy. With luck, this will happen about when the fish are done.

In another pan, just sauté the smallest button mushrooms you can find in butter: let them sweat, add some garlic if you like, and some chopped parsley would not go amiss. And if there's any wine left over, drink it.

Assuming the fish are cooked, it would be nice to take the skin off so they look neat and then put them on a serving dish in the oven to keep hot, while you reduce the rest of the wine they were poached in by half. Add to that some beurre manié to thicken, boil it up and then whisk in 50gm or so of butter to, as they say, "enrich" it.

At which point just stick the glazed onions at one end of the serving dish, next to the fish, the mushrooms at the other end, pour the sauce over and serve. Crusty bread and salad to go with it go rather well.

After all that we headed off to Grenoble to see Upstage Theatre's latest effort: Miller's "The Crucible". Would you believe we were 1500m down the road when I realised I still didn't have my wallet?

On the bright side, at least we weren't halfway to Grenoble, 'cos that would have been embarrassing. And very, very stupid.

And the play was, as usual, excellent. Caught up with David Simpson, Mal's old English teacher, afterwards over a glass or two, then wandered around the quartier a bit to find and scarf a kebab before heading back home for bed around 2am. This is getting harder and harder to do - without side-effects, anyway.

Before I leave you, I'd like to share an interesting place-name: did you realise there's somewhere (in Alsace, I rather think) called Rorbach-les-Bitche? Kind of unusual, I feel.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On the Origins of Conflict, and Other Things ...

Well, today I can almost believe in Spring. Bright and warm, with tits everywhere in the garden - that's the blue feathered sort, not vacationing Scandinavian bints looking for a suntan. Except, perhaps, in some of my wilder dreams. (Although they might also have been blue, had they in fact been there. "Warm" is a relative term.)

Next Sunday we pack Jeremy, his belongings and computer in the car and head south around Bollène to drop him off at Rochegude for six weeks. The house is going to be quite empty, something to look forward to. Would it be tactful and/or appropriate to slip him a packet of condoms during our teary farewells, do you think?

Do remember that he will be spending his time in a chateau perched on a frikkin' great rock with vineyards as far as the eye can see, and you apparently have to make your own fun. Probably using only bits of string and whatever root vegetables are conveniently to hand.

It does mean going on to ViaMichelin or something to get directions: down to Bollène I'm pretty sure I can manage, but after that it might get a bit tricky as all these bloody departmentales tend to look alike to me.

Yes, I know, I have a smartphone which is GPS-capable but apparently as part of the deal with Bouygues, Samsung zapped the Garmin satnav app that was one reason I actually got the bloody thing, and the only one that seems to be available I cannot download for it tells me that the 4Gb available on the memory card is insufficient for the 400K it requires.

If I thought it would do a damn bit of good I would go find a Bouygues store, stand in line there for an hour or so behind other dissatisfied customers, and then complain bitterly: but I have better and more rewarding ways to waste my time, I think. Like watching the septic tank overflow, for instance.

Our slightly deranged friend Karen is off to Tunisia for a while: managed to land some sort of financial-wizardry job with a Spanish company that has an outpost there. It all seems a bit odd, maybe even too good to be true, but as she said - even if it is only a three month trial and she gets the boot at the end, it's still three months at €3000 the month.

Which, last time I checked, came out to €9000. Hell, I'd do tricks for that sort of cash myself. Especially if it involves going off for a holiday in the sun, and probably not getting shot at.

Just looked up on ViaMichelin, and it's probably a good thing too: there are in fact two Rochegudes down south. Confusingly enough they're both accessible from the same autoroute exit, just that once you get off at Bollène they're in diametrically opposed directions. And one thing I so do not want to do is to find myself in the wrong place and be faced with a 100km backtrack through the departementales of rural France on a Sunday with no map.

Ever noticed how wars seem to start, and no-one can ever say exactly why? Apart from fingering some hairy-eyed anarchist with a pipe bomb, or something like that? Historians and analysts will chunder on about economics and trade routes, Rumpelstiltwitz (would be a neologism were it not a philosophical conflation) would blather for years about geoplitical imperatives and the like, but I have discovered that it's much simpler than that.

Case in point: not so long ago our friend Stacey (not being the most experienced of cooks) rang to ask how you made pancakes. After a bit of stunned-mullet silence Margo gave the traditional recipe, which involves far too much butter, flour, an egg and - I quote - "as much milk as you need for it to be right", and we left it at that.

Now this is where it all goes titsup thanks to the fact that we simply do not really speak the same language as our trans-atlantic cousins - or at least, we don't pronounce it the same way -  for last night I had occasion to ring Stacey and apparently the crêpes were a success because the first thing she said was "Do tell Margo I had the best craps ever with her recipe".

If that's not a casus belli, buggered if I know what would count as one.

 In case you're wondering, I did in fact get around to making the Chickeninnabun™ recipe I mentioned last time, and it was indeed not too bad at all.

Because that's what I happened to have, I used lard and sour cream and rosemary for the bread dough (which got made the evening before, and then got to spend the night in the fridge, reflecting on its misdeeds), and I stuck some tinfoil over it after about half an hour in the oven to stop it browning too much.

Smelt heavenly as it cooked (really does need at least 90 minutes, mind you), and I managed to slice the top off the bread, extract the chicken without massacring it too much, carve it and stick it all back in for serving without too much hassle. On reflection, I could probably have got away with sprinkling a little persillade (don't worry, that's just finely chopped parsley and garlic) over the top before sticking the lid back on and putting it back in the oven for a few minutes, but that might count as gilding the lily.

Whatever, the gusts of herby steam when the lid came off at table were worth the effort, and the best bit, as Lucas remarked, is that you don't have to go to all the trouble of dunking your bread in the chicken juices: it's already imbibed them as it cooks. Comes pre-dunked, as it were.

I think that's another recipe that I'll put on my little list of things to do again, some time when I want to impress guests without working too hard.

And as you can probably tell, we made it down to Rochegude (and back again, fairly obviously) to leave our firstborn son to the tender ministrations of the kitchen staff there.

As luck would have it, the weather chose today to turn to rain, which is a bit of a bugger - at least from a photographic point of view. Didn't really make the trip any more pleasant either, and having to have the picnic actually in the car rather than on the grass in the sun is also a bit of a downer. Too bad.

The place was apparently started back in C11 by Boris "On-spec" the Bastard & Sons, Bespoke Builders to the Ennobled Thuggery, and had a few improvements (like a couple of extra floors, a gatehouse, rather approximative glazing in many of the windows and rough plumbing) done back in the 18th.

The head chef very kindly took us on a tour of the place, and I have to admit it does look rather classy. The kitchens are pretty tiny though, I should think they'd be rather cramped with the full staff of five in there.

Still, I find it reassuring that restaurant dishes are even grubbier (perhaps "well-used" would be a better choice of words) than ours.

I get the feeling Jerry will enjoy himself: it's a small team, the chef de cuisine seems very nice, and apparently they do everything - with the exception of the bread, which they do buy ready to be baked - on the premises. So if fish, for instance, is on the menu, it gets gutted, peeled and dissected in the kitchen. It'll make a change from reheating anonymous packets in the microwave.

With any luck it'll be fine when we go back in six week's time to reclaim the prodigal, and we can spend a bit of time wandering in the 10-hectare park that comes with the place. And doubtless spending a bit of cash in the boutique, where they have wine (as you might expect), truffled balsamic vinegar, little flasks of lavendar essence and other little gew-gaws. I think I'll be a sucker for the vinegar.

And as an aside, Jeremy was not joking when he said that the lunch menu started at €170. It does, and I have a photo to prove it. Given that it seems to be truffle-themed, I can understand that. How does truffle-stuffed scallop sound as an appetizer? ("Truffe serti dans son Noix de St-Jacques", if you really must know.)

And for a main course, roast quasi de veau (go look it up in Larousse, I can't be arsed) studded with truffles and served with its ecrasée des legumes oubliées? (Which is no more than a purée of what some people will rather annoyingly and somewhat pretentiously call "heirloom" vegetables: my personal opinion is that if they've been forgotten, as the French name suggests, it's for bloody good reasons, like they're too much trouble to prepare and/or they taste absolutely foul.)

Still, I could think of worse surroundings in which to eat them.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chainsaws and Charcuterie ...

Well, bugger me rigid, what a sad, dreary day! Here I wuz, leapt from bed at the crack of midday with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, headed downstairs to grab a coffee (if Jerry had left any) with a view to curling up in my favourite armchair and feeling smug about all those bloody tourists who so pissed me off on the roads having to ski on gravel, and what do I find? It's only gone and bloody snowed down to 600m.

So the best I can salvage from the wreckage is to hope that they feel really miserable skiing in a snowstorm, and just maybe they'll all be carried away by avalanches. Preferably whilst eating reheated tinned ravioli: that would be a fitting end.

Margo is happy, if a bit stiff: she got to borrow a chainsaw, and once she'd collected enough extension cords (for it is an electric one) she went down to the garden with it yesterday and started "pruning" some of the acacias. You know the old saying - "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? My advice to you would be to not go down to our garden and stand still for too long: you might start to look like a tree. To a woman with a fuschia hat and a chainsaw, anyway. Just saying.

They've got a respite until next weekend anyway, what with rain and electricity not mixing too well. (Also, we need to get a 100m extension cord.) She has it all planned out: there are a couple of the big acacias to come out (particularly the one that shades the apricot tree, that we tend to blame for the complete lack of apricots over the past five years) and the ginormous bay tree to be severely reduced. And if I were the old apple tree, I'd be quaking in my boots around now. Although it's probably safe enough for the next few years, even if it is riddled with bloody mistletoe.

I did in fact go down a year or so back and cut out some of the more infested branches: now I really have to get off my arse, make up some more bacon (maybe finish curing it with a bit of maple syrup) and then use some of the apple wood to smoke it. God knows I've got all the required bits and pieces (a cheap electric hotplate, an aluminium pie dish and an enormous flower pot, should you be wondering), just have to get around to actually doing it.

Maybe this summer, when it's barbecue time. Which reminds me that sometimes I wish I had a kettle barbecue, which would be a handy thing to have for one of the dishes that's on my list of things to try one day: basically you barbecue a chicken and then, while the coals are still glowing, fling on an enormous quantity of tea leaves and close the lid on the thing so that it finishes cooking in the smoke. It's doubtless hideously carcinogenic, but it sounded kind of attractive to me. Or at least interesting, which often comes down to the same thing.

I do sometimes wonder who it is that got the job of naming the cocktails at Cardinals. Perhaps they should get out in the fresh air a bit more, it can't be healthy being stuck in a dim cupboard all day, with only a few old magazines and some acne cream for company.

Speaking of which, so far we've not seen much of Jerry, so my misgivings turned out to be unfounded: he crawls from his nest sometime at the end of the morning when we're out (ontogeny definitely recapitulating phylogeny here), spends all afternoon working for Stéphane (yesterday it was getting rid of the heaps of hay that the previous owners had left in the grange), comes back about 18:30 and disappears into his room until it's time for dinner.

Then he eats ravenously, pausing only to inhale from time to time, and goes back to his room until midnight or thereabouts, when it's time for a fridge raid. I do not care to consider how big the heap of yoghurt pots is up there, nor what strange slime-descended life-forms may be lurking underneath the mattress. All hail our alien dairy-food overlords! (I don't really mean that, but just in case they win I'd like to be on their good side. If a puddle of 90% lactose with amino-acids can be said to have one.)

And whilst I'm thinking about food; I vaguely recall mentioning Stephanie Alexander's peaches and cream tart a while back. It turns out that if you add about a quarter cup of flour along with the cornflour to give a stiffer dough, so it turns out more like a cake batter than a custard, it works really well with fresh pears too. I had some sitting in the fridge that were perhaps a wee bit too ripe to eat just like that, so I had to do something with them, didn't I?

Plus I just came across Clotilde Dusoulier's latest, which is something I've in fact known of for a long while but never got around to doing 'cos I suspect that I'd be the only one around here to actually like it (well, maybe Jeremy ...): Chicken Inna Bun, perhaps better known as chicken baked in bread. (Probably poulet en croûte, actually.) Maybe I'll get around to making it anyway: need something to surprise Sophie with one of these days.

Couldn't be simpler: just stuff the chicken under the skin with chopped parsley and salt, and stick half a dozen squashed garlic cloves in its little guts, then wrap it up in a circle of bread dough. At this point you can stick it in the fridge overnight if you need to, or bung it straight into the oven for an hour and a half, or thereabouts.

Because she's really into pain au levain she used a sourdough bread, made with a starter, but you can use any basic bread dough - I'd personally be tempted to use yoghurt or buttermilk as the liquid, and add no other fat. She reckons about 400-500gm of flour, plus 3tbsp of dried herbes de Provence for flavour: she's doubtless right, as you don't want the bread too thin. It should go nicely crusty on the outside and soak up a lot of chicken juice, which sounds rather good to me.

I had precious little choice after the market this morning: Sophie's off again, down in Cannes or somewhere, and Bryan was at a DIY store of all places, doubtless stocking up on power tools so that he could stick them away somewhere and contemplate them any time the urge to actually go do some work on his apartment  came upon him.

Lesser men might have blenched, but the Bimlers are made of sterner stuff, so I headed off to Cardinal's anyway for the usual restorative, and then somewhat foolishly decided to make my way back to the car by a rather circuitous route.

This unfortunately took me along one of the little ruelles that lead off place Metropole, and as luck would have it there's a small cosy bar-restaurant along there that, at this time of the year, has a stand outside with a great simmering pot of diots in white wine. I caught a whiff of it as I wandered along, then a great lungful, and the temptation was too much: I turned on my heels and walked rapidly back to the market before it closed.

I came away with four diots and a pot of batusson to add to the three Saint Marcellins nestling in the shopping basket (and incidentally sterilising the inside of the car), came home, and stifled the hunger pangs for an hour whilst my diots au vin blanc cooked. Couldn't be arsed making a salad, but at least there was some wine left over from the cooking.