Monday, April 25, 2011

I'm in love ...

God knows I am no poet, despite Sophie's accusations, but I think I may have fallen in love. Just let it be said that if there is a more savage, beautiful place on this earth than the northern tip of Provence, I have yet to see it.

It actually turned out fine, despite the gloomy forecast, and so we headed down on the route Napoleon to pick up Jerry after all - through the Vercors, which is magnificent in its own right, and you can see how the Germans had such trouble during the war  trying to winkle out the partisans - and then, all of a sudden, you cross some invisible line somewhere and find yourself in Provence.

There's the light that drove van Gogh mad, and the smell of lavender and pine and godnose what else (probably bunny-crap, if the truth be known): olive trees cling to the dry soil and the rivers, that started out as half-dry streams, rush through the gorges. And overhead the sky is that appallingly bright blue, with fantastical clouds heaped up in great masses of white and gunmetal grey.

And something seems to have carved the rocks, having time and nothing better to do, into great buttes and knife-edged slashes coming out of the ground. Around a corner, and a sudden huge triangle of rock is just sullenly sitting there, pointing at the sky.

The signs of human presence are few and far between, with just the odd house that seems to have grown out of the rock, and everything is bone-dry. Until you whip past a bright green and yellow pasture next to the river, 10m below the road going through the gorge. You really should go take a look, preferably sometime before you die. If only because afterwards, it gets a bit tricky.

But do not plan on doing it in a day. We did, because we didn't have much choice, but even so with all the stops en route it took about five hours to cover 250 km, and we could easily have taken another couple of days without getting bored.

(Let it be said, the temporary misorientation at Ste Cécile des Vignes - we were not lost, don't even think that -  occasioned by a road sign cunningly placed so as to be invisible from the direction we were approaching, did not help. But what the hell.)

That said, the countryside is at its most majestic in the Hautes-Alpes, north of Sisteron, and if ever we look at opening a gîte or somesuch, that would be where we'd start looking. We had to head right at Serres to get into the Côtes du Rhone, and the further west you go the more domesticated the land becomes as the mountains get rolled out into hills and then rolling valleys, and the earth becomes more fertile.

Or perhaps it's just that there's more actual earth, and fewer sheets of exposed rock - olives and grapevines are still about the only things that really seem to thrive. You're still in Provence, but the lived-in part. I still prefer the more desolate east.

Could be a bitch in winter, mind you.

Whatever, we eventually made it to Rochegude to get the first-born son and load him and his belongings into the car. I swear one of his suitcases was trying to spit clothes out as we forced it into the boot: I expect the washing machine is going to see a bit of use for the next few days.

Because I'm a sucker for that sort of thing, I came away with a bottle of balsamic vinegar flavoured with truffles, which I thought I'd use in a béarnaise that very night (gotta get rid of all that bloody asparagus somehow). That was possibly an error. Have you ever smelt or eaten truffles?

I've had them once in my life: fine shavings with slivers of crisply barbecued lamb with pasta, at some fancy restaurant up in the hills around Turin (Fiat was paying, don't worry). The scent is earthy - crueller tongues would say that it recalls a rotting dog, but they're the sort that would say that Burgundy smells of shit. Which, to be totally fair, it does. The good stuff, anyway.

But I digress. The point about truffles is that they're kind of powerful, and they definitely wrestled the asparagus to the ground. I think I'll save it and just stick a couple of drops into the salad dressing on occasion.

They'd had a wedding at the hotel the previous night, and of course clearing up afterwards the chefs encouraged the stagières and apprentices to polish off the bottles. So after a cocktail of champagne, pastis and white wine going on until 5am, Jerry's main aim in life was to get a bit of sleep if he could.

And as it was getting on, and there was still dinner to be got ready, we thought we'd be boring and just barrel straight back home on the autoroute. Dull, but quick. (As an aside, even on the autoroute you can tell you're in southern parts. At the rest stops the toilets are squat affairs, toilet paper is either optional or notable by its absence, and the use of rubbish bins seems to be actively discouraged. Just saying.)

So we made it back a little after 19:00, and Jerry woke up, looked around and sighed "mountains". Nice to be home again. Then he disappeared into the kitchen, and demolished all the scraps he could find, just to hammer home the point that he was back amongst us.

And while he was occupied with that, I baptised the stand mixer, making up some herby bread for chickeninnabun, and caramelised some garlic cloves to go with it. Miam, leftovers for tomorrow's lunch!

Still haven't had a barbecue, mind you. Have to get onto that Real Soon Now. That is assuming that we haven't had our yearly quota of good weather, and that from hereon we can still hope for a few fine sunny weekends. Not exactly a done deal.

There seem to be three main industries down that way: roadside snack bars, gîtes and  craft shops. We didn't bother with the glass or procelain shops - got enough of all that, and didn't really have time either - but as the Vercors is known for its wool we did stop off - mainly for lunch - so that Margo could get some cashmere.

Purple cashmere. Also picked up a bottle of hydromel, so that Jerry can taste it, and some beer - for lunch - which did not last long. Completely forgot to pack some with the picnic before we left home, most remiss of me.

While I'm still in the mood, the other thing about Provence is how timeless it all seems. Not that time doesn't go on, (it does, just a bit more slowly, or perhaps they don't pay quite as much attention to it until it's l'heure de l'apéro) just that the sun has been blazing down forever (or a reasonable approximation thereof), the places seem to have been baked into the earth yonks back, and they're not going anywhere soon.

Even the olive trees seem to have been there since the beginning.

Makes me think of lizards somehow - lying baking in the sun, smugly thinking they've seen it all before, and when all the johnny-come-lately warm-blooded meatsacks have disappeared they'll still be here.

Smug bastards, they'll be laughing on the other side of their faces when I push the "nuclear winter" button. (Incidentally, and should anyone come asking which they have no reason to do because the discharge papers were completely in order even if the counter-signature was in yellow crayon, I have absolutely no idea, nor am I in any way at all responsible for, what happened to that tree. I was not there, and I have no recollection of that at this time. Is this your first napalmed Ent?)

Which reminds me, oddly enough, of a time many years ago, peacefully driving in the old Alfetta (at speeds we'll not discuss right now, we have children and have always been reasonable) along the Desert Road only to find myself paralleled by two helicopters, which then proceeded to napalm the scrub to left and right of me. Fortunately, I was - if memory serves - listening to Killing Joke at the time, not Wagner. So that's alright then.

Blogger quiz - why does this man feel that his balcony is a good place to get dressed? Doesn't he know that people have cameras these days?

In other, unrelated news, Mal should turn up in ten days or so to visit before she heads off to darkest Ecuador to hug trees. Or kiss frogs, or possibly both. Not that I would dare put it like that to her, caring as I do for my life.

Unfortunately Tony won't be coming over with her, I was kind of looking forwards to some more hilarious misunderstandings. (More to the point, my looking like a complete idiot having failed to understand a simple remark. In my defence, may I plead that the accent can be impenetrable? Thought not.)

Be good to see her again - she should have a couple of days overlap with Jeremy before he goes back to lycée, which'll be just about enough. Also means I shall have to buy in a ton of coffee because, as they are their parents' children, life does not begin in the morning until kick-started with a mug or two of caffeine.

One of these days, I swear I shall go and get a drip-stand for each member of the family, like that we can just have the stuff direct to the blood-stream. If only I could work out a way to get croissants or pain au chocolat in there too ...

Whatever, not too bad, as Easters go. Even if we didn't do the bunny-hunt down in the garden. I've known worse. At least we still have skies like this, from time to time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wine Is Raging, Strong Drink Is A Mocker ...

I know I've spoken in the past at some length on this, a subject rather close to my heart, but still ... there's one question about French wine which causes me to wake with a start in a fit of existential dread and that is: with the immeasurable improvement in quality over the past twenty years or so, why is la Villageoise?

Not "why the rather stupid name", just "why does this filth exist"? Simple question, really.

You'll find the stuff in 1.5l plastic bottles on the bottom shelves at the supermarkets: you can tell it's wine (or at least vaguely related to it) because it's a red liquid (although there's also a white, actually piss-coloured but doubtless equally poisonous), with alcohol in it (it says so on the bottle) and for the chronically retarded the label has  a jolly and brightly-coloured picture of a blonde village girl (who has apparently, given the straw in her hair, just come from a roll in the hay) with sparkling eyes and a glass of red liquid in her hand.

Which appears to have come from a plastic bottle on the table nearby ... I suppose this makes it, technically, a recursive self-reference and I do not wish to go there, for that way lies madness. Someone give me another drink. Please.

(The more alert amongst you will doubtless observe that the label - which I snapped this very morning, purely in the interests of research - no longer corresponds exactly to my description, but instead shows a winsome, if rather masculine, lass whose facial features seem to have been surgically removed, striding along the improbable yellow brick road of her charming Provençal village. I suspect them of trying to move the stuff up-market, but I get the feeling they're unwittingly targeting the zombie slasher-flick segment. Or maybe they got Munch to do the redesign; if so it was a mistake, in my opinion.)

So the vile stuff exists, but I still haven't seen anyone actually buy it. Someone must do so, or it wouldn't be on sale, but for the life of me I cannot imagine anyone sad enough to - let's say - turn up at a party with a crate of this and plonk it proudly down on the table. Or even hide it shiftily behind the fridge before sloping off to look for something drinkable.

Definitely NOT la Villageoise
I mean, I've done, god knows, some pretty foul things in my time, but I wouldn't let stuff like that in my kitchen. And certainly nowhere near food. Nor would I even contemplate drinking it, were I in the last agonies of thirst crossing the desert - I'd prefer to pull out the last magnum of Baldrick '08 "Isle of Wight" Cuvée Speciale and at least go out in style. It could work for getting stubborn stains off the floor, if you didn't mind the floor being permanently pink afterwards.

On the bright side, the target demographic (as we used to say back in the days when I was serving up lashes of freshly-cooked statistics for a publicity agency, the object being to convince the client that his lousy cpm was entirely the fault of his rotten ads) tends to be the under-educated 60+, or the terminally alcoholic. So at some point the market is going to cease to exist - a small victory for civilisation and good taste.

As you may have noticed, Easter is coming up rapidly upon us and so, after a couple of weeks of beautifully sunny weather, clouds are massing on the horizon. Bloody typical. I should not have even thought of my half-formed plans for a picnic lunch this week-end, let alone whisper them to anyone - I should have known it would all end in tears.

Still, if Meteo France live down to their usual track record it may well still be bright and sunny come Saturday, shall just have to hope. And fine weather on Sunday as well would be nice, as we're scheduled to head back down to Rochegude to pick up the favourite son and bring him back home (watch in awe as the grocery bill doubles), and I'd rather planned on taking the route Napoléon south from Grenoble, rather than the boring old autoroute. But if it's pissing down with rain that'd be about as much fun as DIY dental surgery, of which I've never been a great fan.

But getting back to this picnic business, weather permitting of course: the challenge is always to find soemthing that either requires no cooking at all, or can be cooked with a minimum of gear (I am assuming here that you don't go on a picnic with a trailer-load of kitchen equipment behind the car, for that would be cheating). The "no cooking" option is attractive, especially if you've the time earlier to make up something like a pâté en croute (just frog for "meat pie", I know, but it does sound better), but when you've got the Wedgewood spread out on the cashmere rug I do feel that something a bit posher is called for, to follow the cucumber sandwiches.

Also, NOT a portable barbecue
And don't say "barbecue". The portable ones take up an alarming place in the boot, they take hours to get up to heat and you can't be sure of finding enough dry wood anyway (and cow-pats are not an adequate substitute). Also, not really silver-service. Nope, little camping-gaz stove and a decent frying pan is about the limit, in which case your best bet is going to be fish and salad.

A couple of advantages to this - the salad you can make before you go and just dress it at the last minute, and fish is quick to cook which is just as well as the little burners often don't get that hot and in any case you can be sure that the gas bottle will breathe its last just when that is most embarrassing. Now as it happens, I was scouring the innertubes the other morning and came upon saumon à l'oseille des frères Troisgros, which sounds pretty good to me.

It does involve sorrel, about which opinions are divided: some say that it's bitter, other that it's refreshingly acid. I'm more for the latter, myself, but this is definitely another one I won't be making for Margo as she belongs to the first school of thought. I'll let you know how it goes down, when I get around to doing it.

It was Julius Caesar who, quite famously, divided France into three - transalpine Gaul, cisalpine Gaul, and trailer-park Gaul - and oddly enough this division lives on in the education bureaucracy. For therein France is divided into three académies, each of which take their holidays at different times. (Crueller, or more cynical, folk than I have whispered that this is to profit the tourist industry, as it sort of spreads them out over time.)

In any case, this is the Easter weekend, and on top of that it is the weekend when all three académies are on holiday: the Parisians are doing their bit to clean up the countryside by heading back home, the Savoyards are tearfully kissing their cows farewell, and the other lot are both coming and going. Guess what that means for traffic conditions. I really, really do NOT want to take the autoroute tomorrow to get Jeremy.

Whatever, it being Easter Sophie's sister came down from Paris for a couple of days (by train, not stupid) so I thought I'd better leave them a bit of quality time en famille before they started sniping at one another (and I do not want to be there when that starts, either), so it turned out another loose-end Saturday.

Margo managed to occupy her morning easily enough: we went off and, after all these years, bought a decent stand mixer yesterday, which now needs to be put somewhere, so today she woke up with a spring in her step and a purposeful stride (or so I assume, all I can actually vouch for were a few grunts from the bed as I left for the market) and tidied. With intent. I am now going to have to relearn just where everything is in the kitchen and pantry: on the bright side, we've finally got rid of Malyon's baby bottles, a vast collection of empty yoghurt pots and some fifteen year old easter eggs, and we've found some stuff that I didn't even know we had.

Perhaps we should do a spring clean more often - more than once a decade, anyway.

Sadly, being at the market I was unable to participate as I would have wished (quiet back there in the cheap seats) and was reluctantly obliged to have a few drinks with the usual degenerate companions, before heading home to unpack (in a suspiciously clean and empty kitchen) the fresh baby asparagus tips (at 2.90€/kg it would've been a sin not to have bought some), a rather obese pineapple and all the other stuff that's finally coming available again and makes me feel that just maybe life is worth eating in after all.

All this before being confronted with a long idle afternoon and the eternal question of what to do when it's still a bit early in the year to get the hammock out. In my case the answer's pretty simple: drag the camera out and go for a bit of an amble with it. Casing the joint, as it were.

I eventually wound up at the Chateau des Allues, the hotel-chateau a couple of km from our place (I know I've mentioned it before), and on the basis that there's no harm in asking, strolled up the gravel drive with the vague intention of demanding if I could take some photos of the jardin potager outside. I hung on the bell-pull for about five minutes when, just as I was getting ready to slope off  and take them anyway, an English woman hove into view around the corner. (How could I tell her nationality, you may ask. No great mystery, she was bellowing something over her shoulder about having forgotten to lock the bloody car, and the two kids blithely strangling one another with sound effects in English were a bit of a giveaway.)

So I asked her if there was, in fact, anyone there, and she said that yes, but they were in the kitchen and it'd probably be better if I just followed her around the back and inside off the terrace. Which is what I did - unfortunately I didn't have the 35mm on or I'd have taken some interior shots as well - and stuck my head around the kitchen door. The chef said that was fine with him, so rather than wait for him to be contradicted off I went.

As it happens I was thigh-deep in chives and nasturtiums when the other half of the team turned up, recognised me (somewhat to my surprise, it's been two years since last we met), and started off in some detail about it all.

I'm sure it would have been quite interesting were it not that around here we tend to have black hands rather than green fingers (had I been in the garden of Eden things would have ended up differently - wouldn't have been called a garden, for one thing), but I can definitely see the point, when you're only cooking for maybe ten people max, of being able to step out into the garden to pluck a lettuce or two, some fresh herbs and a few unnameable vegetables. Can't get them much fresher than that.

It is also undeniable that the little raised beds  would be particularly handy for disposing of inconvenient corpses, should you find yourself in the unenviable situation of, through no fault of your own, having some surplus to requirements.

Has the added advantage of eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers, an important point for the planet-huggers.

Anyway, seeing as I have a nice bit of hampe in the fridge I really ought to go and see if it's thick enough to slice open and stuff with mushrooms and garlic before frying it, and I also need to make some little filo coupelles to hold the asparagus spears and béarnaise sauce that are all I've been able to come up with so far, as ideas go, to get rid of the stuff. If any of you have a better idea, please feel free to share.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Party Animal ...

Well, I made it to the hinterlands of Montreux for the Cla-Val big bash on Friday. And even if I didn't get to make a Deep Purple pilgrimage to the Grand Hotel, it was rather fun.

Bit of history, just for your general edification: Chateau Chillon started off life sometime back in the 1100s as a collection of buildings which gradually - either through gravitation or sheer lasciviousness - got assimilated into today's monumental pile.

Back in the day, when the counts - later to become dukes - of Savoie controlled a fair swag of Switzerland it was one of their courts, administrative affairs remaining at Chambéry.

But at least you could always go off to Switzerland, and clean water, during the dysentery season. Which must have been quite a relief. (Bit like the French court leaving Versailles for a couple of months over the summer, whilst the cesspits got cleaned out.)

Unfortunately Montreux is at the right (or eastern, I believe) end of Lac Léman, which means it's a good two hour trip from here. Up hill, down dale, through tunnels, over viaducts and of course a quick stop at the douanes to pick up a vignette for the Swiss autoroute.

At least going through by day means you get to see all the radars that seem to have sprouted along the central divider of the Geneva-Lausanne autoroute: the Swiss are so picky about their speed limits, and unlike the French they don't post handy warning signs.

Anyway, I got to the place with an hour or so to spare, rattled across the old wooden bridge and found a place to park, then hopped out and started taking photos. The place is actually built just off-shore, with a little beach off to one side: I'm always struck by how tidy Switzerland is, even the municipal barbecues on the beach were spotlessly clean and no-one had nicked the grills. Mind you, they were heavily cemented in place, so perhaps there's no real mystery there.

Eventually a crowd of corporate-looking suits trooped up to the gate to be insulted by the jester, so I rather reluctantly unglued my arse from the jetty I'd been propping up and headed off to meet the great and the good.

Kind of regretted leaving the camera in the car at that point, because that was when I actually got inside the building and the ceilings (along with all the rest, let it be admitted) were spectacular. Nothing flashy, just acres of dark carved wood panelling. I would hate to have to be the one whose job it was to wax it.

So the mediaeval flunkeys were circulating with trays of drinks (should anyone offer you free Veuve Cliquot, don't turn it down - I was starting to regret my decision to drive back that night) and platters of pretty substantial nibbles, and I was sort of orbiting round the periphery checking out the grilled chicken skewers with satay sauce, and trying to see if there was anyone I actually knew lurking in there.

I eventually found the UK contingent by the simple expedient of opening my ears and listening for accents over the babble and went over: finally got to put faces to some of the voices I'd only heard over the phone up till that point.

Which is always nice, not that they'll stay related for long, given what my memory tends to do with names and faces.

Whatever, after the inevitable, but mercifully short, speechifying they herded us into the actual dining room, which was even bigger, and let us find our tables. For some reason they'd put Renaud, Sophie and myself with the other foreigners, so we were lined up like some sort of zoo exhibit next to the CEO's table with the Italians and the Brits.

I'll spare you the sordid details of the next four hours: suffice it to say that the food was more or less what I'd expected (the foie gras was excellent, but the crispy wafer of slivered almonds that accompanied it was rather pointless), the wine was excellent and copious, and the animation mediaeval was much less dire than I'd feared. In fact, it was rather good and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it.

They'd also got the quantities right and paced the meal nicely, leaving plenty of time for the health-conscious to go out for a quick smoke between courses, so at no point did bloat set in.

In fact, the only real disappointment was the dessert (well, Sophie was horribly deçue, anyway): an enormous pièce montée with Roman candles and all, it turned out to be a polystyrene façade sheltering a number of standard chocolate/pistachio gateaux. Which were also pretty disappointing, but I'm willing to overlook that 'cos the raspberry coulis that went with it was obscenely good.

At any rate, they finally shoved us all out the doors at midnight, and we trooped across the bridge to each get a present, a handshake and a few words from the CEO and his wife. (That strikes me as very American. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't happen in France, anyway.) Then the drunken many staggered off to the bus that was taking them to their hotel: I found the Alfa, turned Sisters of Mercy up full-bore and raced across the bridge in a shower of shit and small stones.

I very nearly stopped just before the autoroute access to take a photo of the Erotik Markt, with its 1000m² of display space (how, I wonder, do you arrange the aisles in a sex supermarket) but wisely decided against it (and anyway it was closed), so I got home around 2:30 and found, to my pleasure, that the dog was asleep and seemed likely to stay that way.

Helen Gray - Pelicans
Because I'm a sucker for punishment, I was up before 8 - that's habit for you - so I even made it off to the market and got the week's shopping done. Of course Sophie was still sleeping it off in Montreux, it was fine and sunny so Bryan was out doing physical things: solitary drinking is so sad, but sometimes a necessary evil. At least I was in good company.

I was rather (extremely) alarmed by the state of the north-bound autoroute when I headed home around midday, for I'd promised Margo that I would head up to her salon to say hello to some of her friends and such, and I had no particular urge to spend a large portion of my afternoon stuck in a traffic jam on the A6.

Carol Ann Waugh - H1N1
At some point, someone really should write a thesis on why it is Belgians migrate. I have my own ideas, but they're pretty unspeakable - especially when I'm stuck behind a convoy of camping-cars laden down with what seems like the entire Walloon potato harvest - and I think it's a subject worthy of proper scrutiny.

Whatever, my cunning strategy of having a leisurely lunch and leaving around 13:30, hoping like hell that the whole bloody mess had moved, like some intestinal blockage on its way to the bowels, sufficiently northwards that I would no longer be bothered by it paid off: at least until Villefranche, where I had to suffer the indignity of a 2km jam but at least it was moving, albeit slowly, and anyway I was getting off there.

Sophie Furbeyre - Draikaina
It's an odd thing, but although I have great difficulty associating names and faces, as I've said - a problem which has put me into mildly embarrassing situations more than once in the past, making me appear a complete and utter prat when I'm absolutely incapable of greeting someone I've met only a short while ago by their name (or even, in the worse cases, incapable of recognising them) - my memory for places is excellent.

If I drive somewhere once, along a given route, I can always get back there, even years later. At the expense, of course, of following the same route - to the point of taking the same wrong turnings and getting back on track in the same way, at least until that too gets assimilated by whatever part of what I like to call my brain (for want of a better word) is in charge of that sort of thing.

Sandra van Velzen - A Storm Broke Loose In My Mind
Of course, the day that someone goes and rearranges the landscape, or otherwise shuffles the visual cues by which I navigate, I'll be stuffed.

Luckily, monuments and the like around here being on the permanent side the only way that sort of thing happens is if they decide to go and shift the road, which is pretty rare. And probably a good thing, because otherwise I'd still try to take the old one, which with my luck would peter out in a bog somewhere.

In any case, it stood me in good stead getting to Anse, with only a slight hesitation at a roundabout that some inconsiderate sod had planted in the road sometime in the past year without thinking to let me know about it.

Elisabeth Michellod-Dutheil - Les Quatres Elements
The Beaujolais is, should anyone out there be thinking of coming over to Ole Yurrup, a very beautiful region. For three seasons of the year, anyway. It's called the region of les pierres dorées - the golden stones - for good reason: all the centuries-old stone walls and houses are built out of a honey-coloured stone that seems almost luminous of itself.

And the countryside - at least up in the monts du Beaujolais - is what they call vallonné - all valleys and ridges and the tiny departmentales taking the easiest way - for a horse-drawn carriage, anyway - from one place to another.

Would almost be a pleasure, in fact, to get lost there - with a camera, a picnic, and plenty of time on your hands. And a GPS, for when you decide you really do need to get where you started out wanting to be.

Les Quatres Elements - detail
Maybe, one of these days, I'll load up the car with the necessities (Camping-gaz burner? Check. White wine? Check. Cream? Check.Beef fillet? Check ... red wine we can buy sur place.) and get lost on purpose.

Back to reality with a thump: met up with Margo and started wandering aimlessly around, camera in hand, until she phoned me - so we went off and got a drink so that she could tell me her news, which was that she'd just had the directeur of the salon at Ste Marie aux Mines, up north, come by to say that he had stands available for the next show "at his discretion", and that he would be pleased if she'd be there.

This is kind of like getting a personal invitation to the Queen's birthday shindig, so she was rather pleased, to say the least.

Karen Tunnell - Liquid Fractals
She apparently knows important people in the French textile world: it was a friend of hers, M. Malfroy of Malfroy-Million (retd.), who spoke to the directeur. And it seems you do not refuse his advice.

(Charming old man, by the way. Must be in his late 70s, goes around the textile shows in a camping-car with his wife - retired from his position as head of the eponymous fabrique de soie at Lyon and doubtless twice as busy in consequence, and an evil sense of humour.)

And that was more or less my Saturday. Drove back on relatively empty roads (south-bound, you see), stopped by for an impromptu apéro with Sophie (gotta keep the blood alcohol level up), then home in time to organise a quick dinner and bed. Because I was completely knackered. So how was your day?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Revenge of the furry folk ...

Of course, with all those good intentions the weekend had to go titsup, didn't it? Up at the crack of 10 on Sunday and, having girded my loins and dressèd myself in the Grungy Shorts of Righteousness, down I go to the garden with resolute tread and smiling face. For a wonder the mower started up first pull, which I suppose really should have hinted at what was to come because, upon reflection, it was too good to be true.

About a quarter of the way through the poor thing stalled: not particularly surprising, as I'd asked it to eat a small hummock of pasture: imagine my pleasure, on yanking the starter cord, to find the cord housing and motor fairing flying off! My fault for tugging so enthusiastically of course, and perhaps I ought to have checked the rather corroded state of the fairing around the anchoring bolts ...

Still, I'm not one to let a little thing like that stand in the way of a well-mown lawn, so I forced the whole damn lot back together (bit like squeezing a too-tight hat onto someone's head) and, more gently this time, tugged the starter once more.

Lo! it started up again, and off I went until, being a bit slow sometimes, and especially at that hour of the morning, I noticed pools of oil and acrid clouds of white smoke appearing ... on a bloody Briggs & Strattion Quattro the oil filler tube is attached to the motor fairing and the bottom end sits snugly in the appropriate orifice in the motor block. Only it wasn't so much "sitting snugly" as "flapping loosely" (think, if it helps, of the consequences of a two year-old trying to hit somewhere near the toilet), so oil was flying everywhere.

No problem, time for the screwdrivers and socket set, not to mention a bit more oil: ten minutes later and we're good to go, filler tube hammered into place and the fairing held firmly to the motor block with some n° 8 (liberated from the vineyard, if you really want to know). This time I managed another five minutes before the motor slowly wheezed to a halt and stubbornly refused to start again.

I have since downloaded the service manual from the B&S website, and I strongly suspect the culprits are the little sad floppy springy-things that - apparently - have something to do with the carburettor. They are, it seems, set at the factory and if they get out of whack the fuel pump will not work: as far as I can tell with my limited mechanical ability they are currently just there for show, as they've long since lost any springiness they may once have possessed.

But a) finding spare parts is not that easy at the end of a Sunday morning, not around our way anyway, and b) under a bright blue sky in 27° heat is emphatically not my idea of the best circumstances in which to try dismantling a carburettor. So I called it a day and went off to find the shower, which was perhaps the best idea I'd had so far that day.

I'll try to get around to the repair work this coming weekend - Saturday's out, of course, as I think I shall have to go off to this salon up around Lyon: just hope it's not pissing down with rain on Sunday. And of course, no-one - but absolutely no-one - wants to touch a B&S engine. When you phone to see about getting it repaired there's a doubtful voice asking what type of motor it is and you haven't even got time to get the first syllable out before the line goes dead. I find that rather depressing.

On the other hand, things did get better. I headed up to the office to see if I couldn't find a Windows XP installation CD with the 25-digit serial number from hell on it, given that the one I used to have around the house seems to have mysteriously vanished, only stopping off at the cave de Cruet to pick up a couple of Chateau Carton 5-litre baggies of Mondeuse.

And on the way back (no, I did not find the CD I wanted, it seems to have gone AWOL too) I stopped by Stacey's to pick up that chicken curry recipe and to check that the Mondeuse was indeed what it said on the box (it was, although it took a bit of sampling to be absolutely sure). But I'm not certain that buying the stuff like that is a good idea: it's all too easy to drink without noticing how fast the level is going down. At least when you chuck the second bottle of the evening in the recycling bag you've the occasion to ask yourself whether or not opening a third is really a good idea. (On considered reflection, the answer is usually "Yes" anyway, but it's nice to ask.)

Been so beautiful that we actually got around to turning the central heating off, a good month or so earlier than usual. As the more realistic of you will guess, this was a signal for the temperatures to plummet. Can live with that to be quite honest, it's not that the weather is foul or anything, just that the day starts off around 9° as opposed to 15°. Still bright and sunny, though.

Which makes up for the rather sad disappointment I experienced when I wandered into one of my favourite boulangeries at Chambéry, on rue d'Italie, and saw that they were offering pain de tradition au chocolat blanc. There was no way I wasn't going to buy that, and I rushed home with it in my arms, envisaging beautifully chewy bread studded with little explosive nuggets of white chocolate (which reminds me, gotta go down to Grenoble again to The Cake Shop to pick up some more of the stuff). What I was not expecting was an admittedly good, if a trifle stolid, flute with a tunnel down the middle, the walls of which were apparently lined thickly with mucus.

Definitely not what I'd been hoping for. I suppose next time I go in I shall have to have a few words with them about it.

I know I've mentioned l'Arbre à Bières before, in conjunction with their flammenkuche: having little better to do at midday I met Stacey there for lunch. I can see that it might well become a favourite watering hole: they don't do an enormous choice - you can pick from the list of tarte flambées, stuffed bretzel or the plat du jour - but it's very well done, nicely presented and quite cheap.

The bretzel struck my fancy: it came out on a slab of slate, served a bit like an anorexic hamburger (only the bread is absolutely delicious and a pleasure in itself, a far cry from the bland crumbly tasteless excuses for a hamburger bun that you usually find), and it was stuffed with ham and fresh goat cheese and a smear of fig jam, and came with a pile of salad and a mound of spirilli dripping with what tasted like (and might well, in fact, have been) fresh tomato sauce. And a simple fried tomato, with basil and pepper: I like simple.

The plat was announced as a straight-forward filet mignon  de porc aux champignons, but I saw a couple of guys eating it and it was nowhere near as basic as that suggests. It is true that there was pork fillet in there, roasted and nicely pink alongside the mushrooms, but there was also salad, a sort of bagel sans hole, potato croquettes and ... I could not have eaten all that.

Stacey, poor benighted Californian that she is, had never heard of flammenkuche, so I suggested that she owed it to her continuing education to try one. I have to admit that even the chicken curry one sounds attractive enough, and one of these days I'll summon up the courage to order one.

Anyway, I made her order my favourite, the Santorin (for some strange reason, these people seem to think that the combination of ham, goat cheese and figs is as Greek as homosexuality, for my bretzel was garniture cyclade, but I can forgive them that).

Washed down the lot with a 50cl pichet of cabernet (nothing to write home about, but at least it wasn't water) and the whole thing came to the princely sum of €26 (of which €9 for the plonk - you can see where the margins are in  the restaurant business), which is definitely on the low end of the scale.

And even if the decor is a bit grunge (kind of arty student-bar style, if you get my drift), there's a loaded bookcase off in one corner with a couple of chessboards as well. Add friendly staff (all two of them), a nice welcoming atmosphere and an eclectic selection of beers, and I think it's a winner. All they need is a house cat.

Mind you, I have not been brave enough to try the toilets. I got put off that by the bar we used to hang out at in Vitré, all those years ago, and I really do not want to find out that some things never change.

Whatever, I think I'll be heading back there in the relatively near future - if only because it's Stacey's turn to pay. And I am going to have to learn how to make that bread base. Still white, paper-thin and blistered - I suspect, sadly, that the secret is in the oven. Bugger.

A good thing that no-one has yet had the bright idea of putting the equivalent of a Plimsoll line on cars, otherwise Margo would be in trouble. She and the long-suffering Suzuki headed off to Beaujolais Wednesday morning, with the wossname (in Frog it's a coffre de toit, but bugger me if I can remember what the English word is) on the roof packed with alcohol and food, and the car as full as it could possibly be and still leave room for her. She'll probably have a slow trip: it's not the most powerful car at the best of times, and loaded down like that the climb up to the Dombes east of Lyon will doubtless be at walking pace. Give her time to appreciate the scenery.

This also means that when I get home tonight I shall have the dog (who will have forgotten that I exist, and be ever-so excitedly surprised to find that, in fact, I do) falling over herself (quite literally) to greet me by shedding hair in a great cloud all over my black shirt and jacket, before insisting on her usual geriatric waddle around the neighbourhood. The cat will sidle in and insist on being petted as she eats, which will make the dog jealous, and finally I might get a few minutes to myself to make up a quiche and some salad for a solitary dinner out on the terrace, with any luck.

Then I suppose I'd better go rinse off the bacon that's been curing in sugar, salt, juniper berries and herbs down in the fridge in the cellar before hanging it up to dry for a couple of weeks, after which it should be fit for purpose. And finally, when the dog's been fed, perhaps I can look at slothing out in front of TV - catch up on "Endgame", perhaps. (Saving the last three episodes of "The Almighty Johnsons" - Margo'd kill me if I watched them without her.)

Little note for those of you that care: Malyon just called to say that she's managed to wangle a £900 scholarship grant. I do not want to know how. On top of her getting her International Canopy-Crawling Certificate (or whatever it's called, means she's licenced to clamber around at 60m in tropical canopy, apparently): she seems to be on a roll. Well-done, that daughter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If you were wondering, it seems to be summer ...

Spent some unscheduled time on Monday night doing a bit of vermin extermination on Margo's little Samsung - which still, after all this time, has not had the protective plastic film ripped off. So it is still shiny - not very natural, around here.

Nothing particularly nasty, just some scareware that set itself up as the default program to use when running programs, so every time you ran Firefox or whatever (in fact Firefox - and other installed browsers - had been targeted as they had their own "run by" entries in addition to the generic one) up would pop a scary screen advising you that at least 25 imminent threats had been found, and would you like to pay to upgrade your protection ... 

There had been some effort spent to make the popups look like the real Windows alert screens, so I suppose they'd at least bothered to do a decent(ish) job, but still I would really like to strangle the people who distribute that sort of thing, and their wives and children and pets (first), just for wasting my time.

The damned thing turned up as a boobytrapped pdf from DHL, and as Margo was expecting a delivery notification from them she opened it ... what a pain. Strangle them again.

We lunched at a place out at Bassens called Cadilla'c today (another case of flagrant grocer's' apostrophe, don't know why they bother, it's not funny any more), just to try their burgers, which apparently have quite a reputation. Don't worry, the frogs still can't do burgers for shit.

The premise was good, the frites excellent, and the burger was, as promised, enormous, but the bottom of the bun was soggy so you couldn't actually eat it with your hands, there wasn't enough lettuce, and NO BEETROOT! They'll burn in hell. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a little: it wasn't actually bad, in the sense that Ghengis Khan was, but it certainly wasn't good enough to make me forget, even temporarily, about sex either.

There used to be a decent little hole-in-the-wall down rue Roche but that disappeared overnight some time ago, so our only hope now is Elea's at Carré Curial. They do an excellent BLT, their eggs benedict aren't too bad (apart from the industrial-yellow colour of the faux-béarnaise they're drowned in), and you get a decent coleslaw which is always nice. Will let you know: I have actually sighted them in the wild (in a manner of speaking: some young folk at the table next to ours were devouring them once when I had lunch there with Sophie) and they do look quite appealing.

I keep coming up with meal ideas that just won't stay down. What could be wrong with meltingly caramelised spare ribs, chicken wings with lemon and ginger, the spicy beef salad, satay kebabs with sour cream and cucumber and garlic, and a few other trifles to fill out a lazy Saturday lunch? Or filet de boeuf Woronoff, poached in two different types of cream with cucumber slices and paprika? Not a lot, is what I keep saying to myself, so my list is getting longer and longer. And as I'm setting up a spreadsheet to price my meals out, this is a bit counter-productive: the good old "one step forwards, two steps back" polka.

Still, it can't go on forever: I have to run out of brain cells at some point. If necessary I shall hasten the process by resorting to drink.

Next week Margo disappears to somewhere near Givors, in the Beaujolais, for a quilt show: Jerry of course is still down south so that means I'm all alone with the animals for four days. Cue loud and sarcastic cries of joy! And on Friday Cla-Val are celebrating their 75th birthday so it's off to dine poshly (suit and tie for the gentlemen, evening dress and a shawl recommended for the ladies) at Chateau Chillon, on the Léman shorefront at Lausanne.

I shall dust off the suit I got married in, frighten a few moths, and duly head off: dine and not wine too much, then make my excuses around midnight and drive back here. With luck most of the Texans will have fallen in the lake playing forfeits, and the Californians will all be stoned, so I'll not be missed.

A Friday quickie for the science-minded: how lightbulbs work. Fair warning, it's El Reg, so not 100% accurate. But it's good enough for me.

As usual it's gotten around to my favourite day of the week. Unfortunately, hot and sunny: if this keeps up we shall have to look at turning the central heating off. Of course when we do that  I can quite confidently predict that there will be snow.

Still, at 26° in the afternoon - how's it with you lot down below, by the way? Whatever, the boring winter vegetables are starting to disappear and I made it back from the market with snow peas and beans and tomatos (still taste like cotton wool, unfortunately - chalk up another point for cynicism in the never-ending struggle of hope against experience) and asparagus and mushrooms and a little cendré de chèvre and even a little Cavaillon melon - just what am I going to do with all this?

Personally I think it's going to involve a barbecue in the not too-distant future: I've got some pork chops in the fridge that are just crying out to be quickly grilled and then topped with sour cream, cheese and mustard, before being eaten with potatoes baked in the embers (with a nice mustardy vinaigrette, why not?) and some decent fresh vegetables.

On the downside, it's being so fine meant that Bryan was off doing laps of the lac du Bourget, Sophie was lapping up the sun somewhere in the countryside, so I was once again condemned to drink alone. It's rather sad, really. Shocking actually, as I went to le Refuge for once and actually got served within a time-scale not measured in epochs ie I didn't actually die of thirst before someone came and asked me what I wanted. Nearly died of a heart attack instead.

In fact, I strongly suspect Pierre, the owner of the joint, of having gritted his teeth, knotted his bowels and tightened his sphincter before investing in a bit of technology (wifi terminals to take the orders) and some good old grunts on the ground (no, not piggy-sex - just a few more competent waiters. Although the alternative might bring in the punters too, come to think of it ...)

In some ways, it's rather sad to see a fine old tradition disappear. On the other hand, having someone actually bring me a drink, which I get the privilege of ordering, is rather nice. (Although going up to the bar had its advantages. If brazen enough, you could nick three or four bowls of nibbles, and pick the ones you liked.)

Seeing as I'd more or less dedicated my day to idleness, having got home and unpacked the loot from the boot I headed off to see our old friend Jacques up the valley. He'd decided that he needed a new laptop, so I made him order the same model that I have, Dell delivered it on Tuesday, and he couldn't get on to internet. And his old files needed copying over ... we left the machines happily transferring data and took our beers out into the sun to talk about food and wine.

Bloody good way to spend the afternoon really, but you should watch out for the witbier. Treacherous stuff. As witness the fact that when I finally headed back home I found myself in possession of 500gm of 18-month old Comté (which you really owe it to yourself to eat at least once in your life, it is so good), a bottle of burgundy and his old laptop, which he'd instructed me to give to Jeremy.

Sadly, on current form there'll be bugger-all morilles this year. Too dry, and if it continues it'll be too late and we'll see none of them. Never mind, they may not be in the same class but at least we can be pretty sure of trompettes and chanterelles in autumn. And they too are pretty sublime.

Tomorrow, unfortunately, it's Sunday. Not only does this mean that the day after I shall be back at the office, but there are Things To Do. One of those things makes me particularly gloomy for the simple reason that on a day, and at an hour, when all right-minded god-fearing upright Christian folk are attending mass (or, if they're smarter than that, or just protestant, still in bed), I shall be down in the garden trying to convince the lawn that it really, really wants a haircut.

And tomorrow it will be particularly bad, as it's the first cut of the season, the grass is THAT high, and I shall have to persuade the lawnmower, which has spent all winter down there under a tarpaulin, to start - probably in a reddish haze of late-hibernating woodland folk. Wish me luck, people. And let me tell you I am really going to enjoy a shower afterwards.