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.


  1. I don't know about the Munch as the wine-label designer. I would have said one of the Fauve painters... Othon Friesz. Or Vlaminck. But don't quote me on that.

  2. Have you zoomed on her "face"? I personally wouldn't recommend it.

  3. Scary face is indeed scary. I think this is the poster for a teen slasher horror movie of the 'unstoppable masked assailant' genre, which has somehow ended up on a wine bottle.

  4. ooh, ooh, we have those raised-garden-bed thingies! Can we be all up-market & call it a potager garden too???

    PS do you realise that it takes about 3 cycles through the bluddy 'preview' cycle before you actually get the silly word & the opportunity to post??!!