Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Joys Of The Countryside ...

First day of the holidays, and it feels good. Even driving here on the autoroute behind stupid people and Dutch-persons that don't seem to know what an accelerator is for, nor even that one does not slow down to overtake, didn't take the song from my heart, nor the (admittedly carnivorous) smile from my lips.

Of course, there are certain narrative imperatives that go with a holiday, and one of these is that, as a general rule, the weather should be foul. No exception: it's alternated between light rain and torrential downpour so far, under a slate-grey sky. And naturally, Jeremy forgot to put up his window in the car when we arrived yesterday ... whatever. The internet-thingy still works, and so, much to my surprise, does my phone: seems I'm no longer obliged to go on a couple of miles hike if I want to call anyone.

This also means that I can get SMS in a timely manner, which is a mixed blessing really because I now know, in real-time, that Sophie's enjoying fine weather down in the Camargue, which I really could have done without. Never mind, it would be churlish to resent that.

In theory Toe-rag and Tony turn up some time tomorrow: she flew in from Quito to Glasgow yesterday, has today to repack her bags, and the pair of them fly in to CDG tomorrow. From whence, due to a slight cockup on the catering front, they'll have to get across Paris to Bercy (I didn't even know the station existed) and thence down to Auxerre, where I suppose we'll have to pick them up. Be good to see her again, and enquiring minds want to know what guinea-pig tastes like.

Probably like chicken, and if enquiring minds really wanted to know they could probably go google a few recipes and try for themselves (from what I understand they're usually stuffed with herby things and then roasted, but I admit I've not done extensive research), but I suspect that would be frowned upon in maison Bimler. Margo can be such a spoil-sport. Mind you, I'm not sure Jean would be willing to lend me a cochon d'Inde if he knew the fate I planned for it, either.

OK, so what is it with the bloody Parisians? So they're doddling along at 70 on the teeny departementales around here, and as any right-minded person would do I overtake at 110, and the b'stards flash their lights at me? What for? Why are they doing this? Have I insulted them in some way by going faster than them? Just maybe they're cheering me on? Strange, anyway.

For some strange reason Jeremy seems to be allergic to Pesselière: after a couple of days inside the place his eyes look like watery fried eggs and his nose drips like a leaky tap. So he had the brilliant idea last night to sleep outside, and cunningly constructed a sort of tent from two twigs, a few tarps, some string and clothespegs. Unfortunately around 5am the thunderstorms started, and the wind got up ..

And I'm getting back into the swing of cooking for twelve or so. Happily no-one's too worried about time - well, that's not entirely true because what in fact happens is that around 13:30 Marie looks up and screams something to the effect that oh bloody hell, have you seen the time, what shall we eat? - so it's banishment to the kitchen to see what can be done with what there is.

Which is usually, in all honesty, quite a bit. The bare essentials at least - a five-year's supply, if I'm any judge - enough charcuterie to feed a small army, vast quantities of cheese in its multifarious forms and splendour (although the Chaussée aux Moines, which bears the same resemblance to actual cheese as a McDo's to a burger, if a McDo's had more polystyrene in it, had to be chucked when it became apparent that even Caroline wouldn't eat it), and always something unexpected lurking at the back of the fridge.

On the other hand, no sambal oelek, no nuoc mam, and no cinnamon, which seem strange omissions to me. But as luck would have it, the main favourites for lunch are quiche and tomato flan, neither of which require anything exotic or, indeed, unavailable.

And you can never go wrong with a decent salad, and heaps of bread.

In a bizarre follow-up to Windscreen-licking Belgians barely escape GPS of Doom, we thought we'd try out Margo's shiny new GPS when we headed off to Auxerre. I do not like it. Setting the language to English means that all the on-screen instructions are, in fact, more or less comprehensible, but she's not yet managed to get it to speak to us in English. So it's rather like being directed by a French vampire, for unfortunately the voice they used is kind of sibilant and - dare I say - sinister.

It's less fun than it might seem to be suddenly disturbed by a hissed instruction to "à six cent mètres, serrez à gauche", in fact I found it positively disagreable. Add to that the fact that the beast seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the farm tracks and routes forestières around here, and apparently wanted us to take them, and it became downright unsettling. I've read enough to know that in circumstances like that there's only one possible outcome: we're being directed to our deaths at the hands of perverse, in-bred, cannabilistic country bumpkins, in some ramshackle outhouse somewhere in a bleak , wind-swept and deserted village. Something to occupy the butcher, so he doesn't have one of his little turns.

Definitely not something on my travel plans for the immediate future.

But whatever, despite its best efforts we did in fact make it through and even found the train station, Mal, and Tony. By which time, of course, the weather had outdone itself, having gone in two days from mid-30s to a high of 15. With, naturally enough, rain. Not so good.

Anyway, it cleared up Saturday, so being a sucker for punishment I went back, camera in hand this time. Despite being apparently peopled by a race of congenital retards, Auxerre is actually a rather pretty city - at least the vieille ville, the old mediaeval city. It's built on a hill by the river, has narrow twisty streets that in some cases are more like stairs, half-timbered houses and, to my mind at least, an excessive number of cathedrals: three, as far as I can make out.

But not that many tabacs, and as one of the reasons for going through was to stock up on cigars, I found that rather annoying. I must have spent three hours wandering aimlessly around the place (don't be silly, I am - according to the evidence available - a male and thus congenitally unable to ask for directions) trying to find one - first one that stocked my brand and then, in desperation, just one that was open - before finally stumbling upon one that had not closed its doors for the summers, and which actually stocked cigars.

Not, perhaps, ones I would normally have bought, but what the hell, there's nicotine in there and at least they're not those ghastly Italian things that are dry as bone, look like a lengthy dog turd and smell of burning compost.

Pleased with that, and with the fact that I hadn't actually bitten any small children (I seem to have neglected to mention that that day was the brocante des commerçants, when the shopkeepers bring out all the crap they've not been able to sell over the past year or so, stick it on stands in front of their shops, put a 300% markup on it and wait for the tourists to bite), I found a bar down by the river and was only mildly ripped off for the privilege of having a beer in the shade on the terrace.

Which, oddly enough, reassured me, and made me feel much better. As did also, for some reason, the sight of a Dutch family apparently disposing of the evidence of the previous night's debauchery in the glass recycling bins so thoughtfully provided around the parking spots for caravans. I didn't count as such, but even just going by the noise there must've been at least three crates being got rid of.

At least I now know what it is the Dutch get up to on their holidays.

Around here it's a lot more serious than that, let me tell you. Ian, of course, still has theses to look over, papers to check for plagiaristic tendencies, and whatever else being a lab director may bring upon your head; Malyon has over 2000 photos of frogs to catalog and annotate; Margo is seriously trying to write her booklet on dyeing techniques; Jeremy is trying to have fun in the middle of nowhere and I, at this moment, am trying to extract a tiny green spider that has crawled into my keyboard.

(This as a prelude to avoiding some of the work I brought with me and really should get onto at some point in time, but procrastination, especially if creative, is much more fun.)

But right now, everyone else has scattered to the four corners of the earth, namely St. Fargeau and Guédelon (yes, that's only two corners but I was speaking metaphorically or something) and I am alone looking after the house, in the sun with the dog.

Who, incidentally, has done bugger-all since arriving apart from lie around in the sun, waiting for food to fall into her mouth. I like to think I'm a bit more productive than that, although I'm willing to admit I could be wrong.

Come to that, looking after the house is not a particularly onerous job. It's been here for five hundred years or so and, barring something major, seems unlikely to go anywhere else of its own accord in the near future: and quite frankly, I can't see anyone around here wanting to steal it.

But I guess one can never be too prudent. Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Burger Quest ...

Un vrai été pourri, as one says over here, at least in our little corner of the country: Saturday was lovely and fine, so I went off and quite shamelessly nicked Stacey's lawnmower (no, I have not yet got around to replacing ours, it will happen, get over it) and then, as she was coming over for dinner that same night, decided to get some food on the table first. Whatever you can, thought I, put off until tomorrow.

A mistake, as the day dawned grey and sullen, and I hastened down to do the deed, only to find the mower choking every 50m on undigested wet grass and myself covered in a thick mist of what I can only describe as grass soup. Not pleasant, I'll thank you not to remind me of it.

On a side note, times are indeed hard: Russian oligarchs are apparently reduced to towing their gliders and caravans around with mere Cadillac SUVs. At least, that's what I saw heading up to the office on Sunday (don't ask). But maybe it was just the gardener, in which case things are as they ought to be and all's well with the world.

Anyway, after a particularly soggy Monday (public holiday, of course it rained) it's starting to heat up again, climbing up in the 30s. And humid too, which is a killer - for me, at least. But just maybe, as you're apparently enjoying the snow, you do not want to know that.

So I had to go into town today to pick up a new chequebook - I had actually thought ahead and tried to do it on Saturday, being as what I was in town anyway (drinking with Stacey at the Refuge, if you really want to know) and the bank's but a hop skip and a jump away. Of course I was to be disappointed. The branch in the centre of town is open Saturday morning (there'd have been precious little point my going there specially if I knew it to be closed, would there?) and closed Mondays: this Monday being a public holiday they decided to close on Saturday to make up for not having the holiday they were having anyway. There's a twisted logic of sorts in there, I suppose: anyway, this is what passes for customer service in France.

That's by the way, what I meant to say was that I was lucky to  get out without killing anyone. For some strange reason Chambéry is hosting the 11th world orienteering championships or some such, so the centre of town was in lock-down and crawling with the gendarmerie. most of the carparks were closed off as well ... add to that the fact that the temperature was something near 34, it was humid and stifling, and the roads were clogged with elderly tourists ... I'm pretty sure my blood pressure is OK, maybe I should get it looked at one of these days.

And it's been a busy week down at the cemetery down the road: that makes two so far this week. Have to wonder what the graveyard scene in Hamlet would be like set in modern times: have to imagine him lounging back in the bucket of the little Kubota digger as he muses on Yorick's remains.

Ate out yet again - god, how we suffer for you - at Elea's Cafe this time: I know I've already told you about the place and their BLTs and such (and Margo can now confirm that their burgers are, although gigantic, definitely better than the run-of-the-mill crap most places offer: nicely crisp rather than soggy so you actually can eat them with your fingers if your mouth is big enough) but I did not mention (for I did not know) that they also serve wine by the glass.

Something which normally I wouldn't consider getting - I'd rather go for a pichet of the house rosé or somesuch, sooner than bankrupt myself - but I was so surprised to see Villa Maria up on the blackboard that I just had to succumb. On top of that it was only 5€ the glass too, so very reasonable. Only comes to 30€ the bottle, for godsake.

Still, we had a glass apiece for old times sake, and I'd have to admit it wasn't half bad. I'm still going for the house red next time, mind you.

Random neurons fire again, reminding me that I tried something new for dinner. I had some more vitelotte and  there was some hampe in the fridge and a gleaming piment fort lying around, so I started leafing through the cookbooks. The potatos were destined for a salad, that was pretty clear, and when I came across this sort of Thai sauce (authenticity not guaranteed) I knew I had to try it.

It is remarkably simple (but unfortunately involves no wine, can't have everything): chop the chili pepper, a spring onion and a clove of garlic and mush them all in a mortar and pestle with 2 tbsp of brown sugar, then add 1 tbsp of lemon or lime juice, a bit of nuoc mam to taste and set it aside for a bit.

Then fry the steak and slice it thinly, arrange the slices on some of the nice crisp lettuce leaves you just happen to have lying around and drizzle the sauce over it. And lotsa mint. Simple spicy bliss. For me, anyway. I think the heat kind of of snuck up on Margo and surprised her somewhat.

Just on the off-chance I called Bryan as Margo and I left the office, and somehow the word rosé was mentioned, so we wound up at his place, joining Beckham to watch him DIH and demolish a couple of bottles (to be clear, we demolished the bottles whilst he demolished a wall), which were all he had in the fridge. (And I'm not joking. Apart from those two bottles, his gleaming new fridge was empty. Some people have their priorities right. Although their vision may be inadequate - I mean, just two bloody bottles? For four?) Then Beckham decided she needed a burger, and she needed it NOW, so we trooped off into the centre of town to find this place of which she knows.

Didn't look too promising on the face of things - just a glorified pub, sort of place you'd expect to be served something pretty mediocre, so I was rather surprised to find it excellent. I opted for the potato burger, which used a couple of potato galettes instead of a hamburger bun: Margo, rather greedily, went for the burger Rossini which, as its name suggests, had a slice of foie gras in there. At only 13€ for that, salad, copious chips and a huge beer, not too bad at all. An honourable mention then for au Bureau.

Currently Saturday, and after a hard-earned apéro around midday I decided, rather foolishly perhaps, that it would be a Good Idea to give the paddock another short back'n'sides before we leave. Is it just me that has that sort of idea? Whatever, I'm sure it meant well, but quite frankly ... it must be up in the 40s today, and the sweat started running off me just looking at the expanse of sun-drenched grass. And of course, it was just when I'd finished that Jerry turned up, looking fit, bronzed and quite capable of a bit of hard work.

Silicone's a bitch, as Anna Nicole Smith doubtless remarked on a number of occasions. I say this only because I had the absolutely brilliant idea, on a day when the temperature is, as previously noted, up in the low 40s, to make pizza for dinner. Even better, individual pizzas. And what better for that, given that we have hundreds of the little suckers down in one of the cellars, than to use a slate tile for each pizza?

Not, in itself, a bad idea. I must admit that I shall have to perfect the delivery system, for the little bastards did not really want to slide off the papier sulfurisé onto the slates, despite being heavily floured; I shall look into that. No, the real problem is that, once cooked, those little slate tiles with the pizzas on top are, basically, 500gm slabs of stone at 230°C which you have to get 10 meters to the table, negociating the dog as you do so. Burny burny! Those posh silicon oven gloves do not do the job, I can tell you.

Still, I managed to do a reasonable version of a flammenkuche: sour cream, onions, diced bacon chunks and goat cheese with a bit of redcurrant jelly drizzled over the top. I liked it, anyway. But I must admit that the heat radiating off that slab of stone was kind of impressive. Maybe go for something a bit lighter tomorrow, especially as Stacey gave me a recipe for a spicy peach salsa and I just happen to have some peaches begging to be used, lying around in the fridge ...

Whatever, better go pack I suppose, as we head off tomorrow to the country seat. Ten blissful days wandering amongst the turnip fields. Be still, my beating heart.

Update: cockup on the communication front, turnips delayed for two or three days. Oh bliss.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Where Food Meets Technology ...

Zombie-punk bunny skull
Our disorderly and slightly demented friend Karen has just rung to gloat at me: she has a new friend. His name is Sam, he is big, solid, and reassuring (and, I suspect, slightly thick), and he dispenses ice-cubes at will. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, he is a ginormous fridge: what's called over here a "frigo americain." (Although most of them are in fact made in Korea - hence, I assume, "Sam" for Samsung, but never mind that. They're supersized, which is what counts.)

She apparently felt it indispensable to ring me especially to let me know this, and that her fridge is bigger than mine. What this means is that she can now stick even more rosé in there, for that is the purpose of a fridge around her place. And around ours too, to be perfectly honest: that is why we have two fridges. One for the essentials, like rosé, and another for the incidentals of everyday life, like stuff for Jeremy to graze on.

I can understand her wanting to change mind you, the old one she had in the apartment in rue de Boigne back in the days before going to rusticate in Mumblefuck had personal issues and had, last time we met, developed sociopathic tendencies: its main aim in life had become, apparently, to throw bottles of wine at me whenever I opened it, and old butterfingers that I am often missed. With the inevitable result that the bottles gleefully succumbed to the law of gravity, crashed to the floor and shattered. So the floor around the fridge was always clean, but had a slightly pinkish cast to it.

And as one does on a Sunday afternoon, I finally found a use for the old Netgear router that's been sitting around gathering dust in my office since we switched over to Orange and a Livebox for our internet access: set it up as a simple bridge downstairs! Which means that at least in the living room and library I'm not obliged to sit just so without moving if I don't want to lose the Wifii signal. (Don't know why, but Windows 7 seems to be a lot pickier about signal strength than 2K was. One of the mysteries of life.)

It only took an hour of time that I'm sure could have been put to better use, but I have done a geeky thing and it is good. Now if I had another spare one floating around I could do the same thing on the top floor, where the signal strength could be better too ... The only thing I've not been able to do is make them appear as one seamless network, but I'm not sure that's even possible so I rather think I'll rest on my laurels.

In the course of my ongoing investigations into small eateries around Chambery, I'm happy to report that "Bangkok by Kanne", rue Croix d'Or, gets a more than honorable mention. Thai food, as you've probably guessed: doubtless dialled back a bit for French tastes, but my pork slivers in red curry sauce with coconut cream were delightfully creamy with a subtle afterburn, and Margo's prawns and stir-fried vegetables in a slightly sweet but spicy sauce were every bit as good.

It's always a pleasure to find decent exotic food in France, outside of Paris anyway, and having found a place to get it we rather tend to clutch it to our collective bosom, as it were. Makes a change from Chinese too, which is nice - above all it makes a change from Chinese restaurant decor, which seems to be universally, and uniformly, repulsive. I imagine there must be a single supplier somewhere in the world, perhaps working out of a hole in the wall in a back alley somewhere in the hinterlands of Hong Kong, who makes nothing but the red and gold lampshades, the red faux lacquer medallions, the scrolls with authentic but sadly obscene Chinese pictograms and those wonderful pictures driven by electric motors where you can actually see the river flowing and things.

You can relax, "Bangkok" is nothing like that. It's actually rather eclectic: sort of trendy café tables meet ex-pizza joint (for that's what once it was). I suspect they have not spent a great deal of money on the decoration.

Sometimes, as we're all aware, Good Ideas turn out to be Not So Bloody Brilliant. We use Ethernet over power lines around our place, given that back in the 40's when the modern part was built you were pretty lucky if you got aluminium wires for the freshly-invented electricity, and very few people had the forethought or the decency to install CAT5 cables everywhere, or even just empty ducting.

So, when I set up that second Wifi network, the Netgear downstairs was connected to the router upstairs via the power lines, and I connected to the Netgear over Wifi. Great signal strength in my comfy chair: so far so good. I first got an inkling that things were not perfect when I started to download something and noted that the download speed was all of 15Kbps, which is not good. Switch over to the other, weak Wifi connection: back to my usual 1.1Mbps. Better.

If you dig around enough there's a diagnostics page buried deep in the Netgear menus so I logged onto that and soon came up with the answer: a quick look at the statistics for then LAN told me that it was maxing out at 28 packets per second. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, the wiring around here is a bit of a mystery but I do know that the living room comes off the kitchen supply through a couple of (exposed) connector blocks and then the kitchen connects to the switchboard through those old-fashioned cartridge fuses ...

With hindsight, the kind of miraculous thing is that packets were getting through at all. In fact, sometimes it astounds me that the electricity manages to circulate.

To my great disappointment there was NO SWEETCORN at the market: I shall, apparently, be forced to wait another week or so for the next crop to be ready. On the other hand the guy did have some vitelotte potatoes, which was nice. The skin is almost black, and the flesh is a brilliant violet with the odd cream swirl: I personally find that the best way of cooking the little buggers is to steam them. They stay nice and firm, so if you have any left over I really would recommend slicing them thickly and adding them to a mixed vegetable salad for a splash of colour. Mashing them would not, I think, be a Good Idea - it might turn out OK, but the thought of raising purple purée to my mouth would rather put me off.

(I know that there's a variety much like them in New Zealand, for I have a copy of Jane's All the World's Potatoes somewhere on the shelves. Try to find them some time.)

Which reminds me that I spoke of sabayon a while back. The word comes from the Italian zabaglione and not the other way around: don't forget that the French knew nothing of the fine art of patisserie until Catherine de Medici brought a whole swag of Italian pastry-cooks into France with her in her luggage back in the 1500s, just to make sure there'd be something worth eating at her wedding with Henri II. In principle it's a very light egg custard, made with sugar, fruit juice and white wine. It can be delicious, and I for one like it as a topping lightly caramelized, which you can do if you have a really hot grill (which the French call a salamandre, and the Wikifiddlers amongst you can look it up for yourselves) or a portable kitchen flamethrower (which is more fun).

But I have other culinary questions confronting me. Margo has someone coming for a dyeing course on Sunday, and it seems I have lunch to make. I've a rather nice salmon roll recipe in stock, which is basically a flat salmon souuflé rolled up around a chopped egg and herb filling, but I want to do something different with it - "as usual", Margo mutters in the background, "can't leave well enough alone ...". Which is true enough, but one has to do something ...

Anyway, I love filo pastry, and I happen to have some in the fridge: now I could stack a few buttered sheets with grated parmesan, cut them into smallish rectangles and bake them until crisp, but then what? Should I spread the soufflé mix out over a rectangle, stick another rectangle on top, then maybe some cheese soufflé over that and another rectangle, then bake the lot for 10 minutes so as to get a sort of crispy two-flaovour millefeuille? Or just bake the soufflé in a lamington as usual, then cut it into rectangles, put each on a rectangle of filo and pipe some sort of soft creamy cheese and herb gunk on top?

I simply cannot make up my mind. Indecision will be the death of me. Maybe I should try both.

Christ, I need a fag RIGHT NOW!
Finally, I cannot help but note that they're really trying to do their best to discourage one from smoking. I find this particular one just so gross. Mind you, from the looks of them they've both got other things on their minds anyway: sex does not appear to be at the top of anyone's list.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Nature of The Beast ...

Hampe would probably have to be my favourite cut of beef, followed pretty closely by basse-cote, which is wonderfully suited to marinating and then cooking on the barbecue. But hampe is in a class of its own: full of flavour, tender (if you cook it correctly, anyway) and - another point in its favour - ridiculously cheap, as few people seem to want to eat it.

It's an odd bit of meat: a band of muscle that goes from side to side of the beast at what is technically called the "arse end'. Its job is basically just to be there and, by its presence, prevent the bladder and guts from falling out, with possibly disastrous, and certainly unsightly, consequences. (Disastrous for the cow, anyway.) A worthy job, that of organic hernia girdle and doubtless a fine example of evolution making do with what it's got to work with, but not, let it be admitted, particularly glamorous.

Nor particularly onerous, because it doesn't do any actual work. It's not as though it has to go through that "lift hoof. Let hoof drop down again. Lift hoof ..." routine, it just hangs there and tries to hold itself together. A job which by and large, given that there are few cases of cows spontaneously losing their intestines and all the other attached bits, it seems to do pretty well.

Don't bother looking for it at your local butcher: you will not find it, for the French do not cut up their beasts as the English do, and in fact I'm not even sure there's a word for it in English. I suppose the closest approximation would be skirt steak.

Mr. B. (the butcher, evidently) nicely pulls off the membrane that sheathes it and even cuts off the shaggy edges before weighing it (an honest butcher is a good man to know), so I come home with a long strip about 8cm wide and up to 3cm thick if I was lucky enough to get a bit from the middle, with the grain of the meat running across the length. I would never dream of trying to make it into a stew, because I rather suspect it would wind up as thick stringy soup, but it can't be beat for a decent stir-fry.

Slice the thing with the grain into 2" wide strips, then - with a sharp knife, remember - slice those thinly across the grain, and it asks only to be marinated with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil before swishing around in a damned hot wok for a minute, no more. What you do with it from that point on is up to you.

It's also excellent simply seared quickly in a pan with some shallots or some-such; if you're feeling decadent you could stick slices of foie gras on top and then slosh sauce aurore (which is nowt but a béarnaise with an education and a bit of tomato concentrate thrown in) over just before serving. In which case it would be more or less mandatory to serve it with cubes of potato rissoled in the fat from the foie gras and sprinkled with thyme and rosemary and gros sel, and a good salad is always nice.

Don't know why I made you suffer through that, maybe just remembering last night's dinner, out on the terrace in the evening under a clear starry sky. Anyway, we just bought a little circular saw attachment for the Dremel which would be absolutely perfect for trepanning, so our next little anatomy cooking lesson might be interesting.

Human nature being what it is I really do not know why I should be surprised: even Indonesia apparently has its own sad twats. Although how I'm to explain to Stacey that a search for 'incest mother with son" on Google Images leads to a photo of her bikini hanging up to dry I cannot imagine.

Completely à propos of nothing in particular, I came across a quote the other day from no less a luminary than Bjarne Stroustrup who is, for those of you not in computing, the guy that is vilified/adored as the man responsible for the Baroque edifice that is C++. Which is not really to the point, and the fact that the fellow (who had to be Swedish, didn't he) has single-handedly caused more misery than anyone since the ill-famed Griswold family (and there were three of them) of SNOBOL infamy is not particularly relevant.

Anyway, what he apparently said was "I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone". I can sympathise with that.

We've had two weeks so far of weather that can only be described as "changeable": oppressive, hot and sticky, with the threat of a thunderstorm alwasy present. Take yesterday, for instance: gray and overcast in the morning as I wandered around the market, then suddenly the clouds disappeared and we took the apéro and remade the world under the parasols at le Refuge.

Emily and Stéphane invited us around for a barbecue that evening and true to form, just as we sat down (only half an hour late, all our fault of course, and anyway that really counts as being on time or even a bit early around here, what with le petit quart d'heure savoyard) the clouds that had been stealthily lurking around the mountains decided to close in and then open up.

Fortunately their parasol is heavy-duty and does a pretty good job as an umbrella, so we didn't bother to shift, just sat and ate and drank and talked as the rain drummed on the canvas above us.

And as luck would have it, on returning home we discovered that we had in fact remembered to close the velux before leaving. Just as well, as we were not really in any state to spend half an hour mopping up the floors before flopping into bed.

Whatever, Jerry's off again today or tomorrow: a friend has invited him to go off on the family holiday, down to Menthon. You know, little place down on the Mediterranean, close to the Italian border, where consumptive New Zealand writers go to die. Think Margo and I passed through it once, many years ago, before we were blessed with children.

So we've another ten days or so rattling around the house and being able to count on the contents of the fridge remaining more or less as expected, without sudden disappearals overnight, and the freezer will no longer be full of frozen gummy bears.

And then, a few days after his return, it's off to Pesselière for the family reunion: us, the Parisians, the English cousins, Mal (just back from Peru or whatever, and doubtless totally jet-lagged) and Tony, and of course Jeannie, freshly arrived from NooZild.

Should be 18 or 20 of us all up: no idea where we're all going to sleep but that isn't really my problem. Stick the yoof in tents in the garden, I guess - as far as possible from the house. And dinners may present their own, purely logistical problems: it's bad enough getting everyone to the table at approximately the same time when there's but 8 of us. I suspect the solution may be found in barbecues and salads. (Weather permitting, of course.)

We'll worry about that when the moment arrives, I suppose. Mind how you go now.