Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow ...

As happens about this time of year, we put on the quaint clothes, did the Masonic handshakes and gathered anxiously around The Doors for the annual ceremony of Turning On The Central Heating. We do like to make it  a family affair, but for some reason uncle Yog never bothers turning up.

You'd think he would check his email from time to time, but apparently not. (Just as well really as I do have a tendency to spit everywhere when greeting him by name, also "All hail Yog-Sothoth, Eater of Souls" is a bit of a mouthful and rather over the top, we just have a kir and a cracker with shrimp paste on it for god's sake.)

Alas, Jeremy has still not completely assimilated the concept of heating ie that it is something that happens inside a house (global warming excepted), for he went up that night into my office to turn on the light on the balcony, and for reasons best known to himself opened the French doors and the shutters. And then did not close them. So I came down in the morning to find it a bit chilly in there, despite the heating. Now at least I know why it's usually warmer outside than in, come the winter. Jeremy is generously warming the entire neighbourhood.

Strange but true: in the English language you can embrace someone, and there's a noun for that, an embrace. It's what you've given the person you've just (with any luck, pleasurably) embraced. Now I've long been aware that in French there is a verb, embrasser, which is more or less equivalent (although, naturally enough, there is a kiss involved): what I've only just recently found out that there is no equivalent noun. (And please don't bother asking exactly why this question was weighing on my mind, let it be enough that such was indeed the case.)

There is, in fact, embrasse (nom, féminin) which is, according to the estimable, and indispensable, Larousse, "un article de passementerie: une corde pour retenir un rideau". A curtain sash, in other words.

So you can, quite properly, say "I hug you, my love, before I roll off and start snoring": (je t'embrasse, mon amour, avant que je commence à ronfler") but quite frankly "One last bit of haberdashery my dear, ere I sleep" ("une dernière embrasse avant de dormir, chérie; vas vite la mettre sur le rideau en-bas") just doesn't do it for me. Unless I've lost something in the translation.

And I am supposed to believe that French is the language of romance? I don't think so.

By the way, this is not actually a free translation service, so any comments asking how to say "How about a quick snog before your husband gets back?" in French will go unanswered. Unless accompanied by cash - I can be bought. Quite cheaply, too, all things considered - the quality of the service, and of course discretion is assured.

It all has to go titsup some time soon I know, but while it lasts I have every intention of enjoying it: the weather is still bloody marvellous. OK, another ten degrees more would be nice but still, after the morning fog the afternoons are unspeakably beautiful, and I can (barely) live with 15°. A Dunedin summer, I suppose.

OK, so what with taking off to the Lubéron and self-indulgently enjoying ourselves it seems that we once again missed out on this rapture thing. Mind you, that seems to have happened to an awful lot of people. Take Beckham, for instance: for once I was thoughtful enough to warn her that it was coming, and so she made her preparations.

In which, I would like to point out, I was not involved. So Saturday I get an SMS to the effect that I'm a complete arse because she took my advice, went out drinking (doubtless, knowing her, to excess) on the Friday night and now, the world not having ended according to plan, she has the mother of all hangovers. As if that's my fault.

And of course it's coming up to All Hallows Eve: Halloween to you lot, or la fete des Morts if you prefer. This must be one of the busiest times of the year for the florists: absolutely everyone is out getting chrysanthemums (I never know when to stop spelling that word: rather like banana, especially after a couple of the eponymous daiquiris) to stick on Granny's grave.

Did you know that there are actually grave-robbers, who come along and steal the flowers from one grave to put them on another? Sad, but true. It's rare, I admit, that you see it raised to the point I saw the other day, when people come along with a trailer early in the morning (to avoid the rush, I assume), fill it up with flower-pots and drive off. And they looked such a nice old couple. Still, I may be doing them a disservice: as Margo said, maybe they just had a lot of dead relatives scattered around the place, and were doing the rounds - dropping off rather than picking up. But I have my doubts.

Whatever, pretty soon all the kids of the street will be down this way looking for sweeties and apparently I'm not allowed to put rat poison on them "because", as Margo says, "Emily loves her children" so I shall just have to put up with that. We still, at time of writing, have about 4 kg of mixed lollies in the cupboard, which Jeremy is not allowed to touch. He takes this rather hard, but life is apparently about overcoming difficulties of this sort.

So, as will happen, Margo headed off to Grenoble with one of the neighbours to look at fabric shops (very thoughtfully leaving me behind), Sophie was in Lyon getting her overdose of kulcha at the Biennale d'Art Contemporain (not sure how she found it. Made the remark that "modern art seems to be a bewildering concentrate of humour and horror", which I find rather ambiguous. Still, she's the art critic.), and it was a fine sunny Saturday: what else could I do but fritter away an idle afternoon with the usual degenerate companions?

That had been the plan anyway, but Bryan wasn't answering his phone and Beckham pleaded yet another monumental headache, so I found myself heading home with, for some strange reason, the firm intention of cataloguing the contents of the freezer.

I'd actually hoped to find some cooked pork in there, to mince and turn into steamed pork buns - which Jeremy actually likes, provided that I don't use rice flour, for this apparently gives a texture to the dough that he detests - but no such luck: there was a failed attempt at corned beef, which pretty rapidly went the way of all flesh along with a half dozen sardine fillets, three popsicle lobsters which will become homard palestine at some time, god knows how many pork roasts and a suspicious looking tinfoil package of what I think must be sausages, and tub upon tub of fruit.

Blackberries, raspberries, plums, cherries - you name it, it's probably in there. I can see that at some point I'll have to knuckle down and do some desserts, and it is the season for clafouti and crumble and stuff like that, after all.

So it was probably a Good Thing that Beckham called to say that she was feeling much better, and how about that apéro in the sun to watch le tout Chambéry go past in all their finery?

Which is how I came to learn about muffin-tops, and just how stern a critic of other women's dress sense a woman can be. Not that she spared the men either, in all honesty. And I have to admit that track-suit and trainers, whilst doubtless comfortable, do not really help an over-weight 30-something male look any more attractive. (But you have to agree that the casually knotted cravat over there is kind of elegant, in an extravagantly BCBG Parisian way.)

After a while of this Bryan made his excuses and left - to go see a Brazilian, or something along those lines, which kind of left my mind boggling a bit - but the afternoon was still young, and we are made of sterner stuff, so Beckham took me shopping (yeah, I know - I really thought I'd got out of that, what with Margo heading off and all, but it seems to have caught up with me anyway) to work up an appetite for the next bar.

Which turned out to be the Café de Paris, where they have three house whites: an Aprémont, a Roussette, and a Chignin Bergeron. And as she's trying to educate her palate, we had little choice but to try a glass of each while we swapped stories (mostly true, even if somewhat embellished) and watched the world go past.

Rather a good way to spend an afternoon that would otherwise been wasted doing something useful, I feel. But I was surprised to look at my watch and find it was 19:00 all of a sudden, and me still unsure what exactly to do about dinner.

Not that I needed to worry too much, because when I finally did get home it was to discover that neither the salmon fillets nor the lamb shoulder had defrosted (OK, so I should have been more organised and dug them out earlier) which, given that there was some ham and lardons and batusson and chevre in the fridge (along with a big hunk of poitrine, but that's destined to become bacon), and a tin of tomato pulp with basil in the pantry, could only mean pizza.

Even if I still haven't got the delivery system right yet, I do like cooking them on the slate tiles. (According to Margo they sell the things at 5€ apiece in places like Habitat which, if true, means we're sitting on a small fortune down in the cellar.) Sticking them in the oven to heat up for twenty minutes or so beforehand means that when you finally do manage to get the pizza base onto them it starts to cook straight away, and so stays thin and crispy as god intended.

A bit of a pain that they're so damn heavy, but I can live with that. Anyway, down in the garden now the leaves are falling with a sound like gentle rain as they brush against one another, and the grass looks as though it's full of yellow flowers, so I rather think I'll head down there and take advantage of it all while the sun's still shining and I don't have to kit myself out as for a polar expedition.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In Love, All Over Again ...

Well I have to admit it really was a lovely day for a trip: bright blue sky and a generous sun. As usual we planned on leaving relatively early, like around 17:00 - as always happens when we make plans like that it was more 17:30 which turned out to be a bit of a shame 'cos when we got to the rocade sud around Grenoble the traffic was moving like a blocked sewage pipe going into a swamp. Instead of the usual 10 minutes it took more like 45 to circumcise the dump.

Still we made it in the end, and I almost sighed in relief as we got onto the route Napoléon to get down to Serres, and thence, at Sisteron, onto the A51 for points south. And despite the constipation at Grenoble and a quick pit-stop at Serres, we still made the trip in about 4 hours, which I suppose means that I must have been speeding just a tiny bit on the nationale, where the straights allowed. (Have to admit it, the further south you go the more petty things like speed limits seem to be taken more as guidelines than anything else.)

Whatever, if you should ever take that road - and I would recommend it, by daylight, for the countryside is beautiful in a savage way, and the Vercors massif spectacular - you will at some point pass the little village of "Le Percy" (named, I assume, after Blackadder's sidekick) and, soon after that, an aire de chainage (which is not a roadside bondage stop, but somewhere convenient to put chains on your car - any place where the snow gets heavy enough to warrant such facilities is not for me).

Should you decide to stop at Serres, which is also worth a halt if only to get an eyeful of the Buësch river, I would advise you against either of the pizzerias close by the car park, for they are touristy and over-priced: head back up the road 100m or so and go into a little hole in the wall called "Pizza Lolo". The owner, cook and doubtless chief bottle-washer is about the same shape and size as a basketball (assuming the basketball in question to be about 1.5m in diameter), but his pizzas are excellent, made with fresh ingredients and cooked as they should be.

We had to wait for about 15 minutes whilst he got everything ready and cooked, and he talked incessantly, so we now know that he was originally from Lyon, came down south for a few days four years ago to see an old friend and stayed - the rest of the details seem to have evaporated from my mind. Probably just as well, there's only so much room in there.

And just before you get on to the autoroute, prepare yourself for the thrill of your life as you pass through Mison les Armands, which a sign proudly proclaims to be the home of the inventor of the speaking clock. (Oddly enough, this turns out to be true: one Ernest Esclangon, astronomer, apparently had nothing better to do with his time one weekend in 1934.)

We finally found ourselves at our destination, a little two-star hotel which, even if it is sandwiched in between a roundabout and the zone industrielle, is reasonably quiet and comfortable, in a kind of shabby provençal way. (That's not denigratory, by the way. It's just that like most things down here it's been burnt by the sun, the grass has more or less given up the effort and if there are little things that don't work there's no point getting worked up about it because it is the south.)

The place also seems to be completely abandoned: I should think it could easily hold 60 people or more, and there are three of us in it (four, if you count an elderly chap I met outside last night as I popped out for a cigar - he told me very confidentially that he'd found a secret door to get in and out, which I suppose was supposed to put me at my ease: if so, it failed) and the staff seem to wait until there's no-one around before doing whatever it is they do. If there are in fact staff: I must admit that I've no evidence for their existence other than that the bed was turned down when I got back here. And that could have been anyone who'd just wandered in off the street.

So as I write this, about 15:30, I'm sitting out in the garden under the trees and I would really like Wifi access but there is NO-ONE IN THE PLACE that I can ask. A sign on the door says that maybe someone will be around between 17:00 and 20:00, but I take that with a grain of salt. It's bloody abandoned, and nobody seems to worry.

Quite honestly, the narrative imperative is going in a direction I really do not like here: little phrases like "skeleton staff" come to mind. If worse comes to worse, I'll try to get a message out by carrier pigeon before the zombies come for us.

(Eventually, I did find someone behind the desk: don't know whether or not they really should have been there, but there was no harm in asking. The access code was written on a grubby scrap of paper somewhere, but that had apparently been filed ... I suppose I could have offered to hack into the router, but on reflection that might not have been such a good idea.)

Anyway, Margo had to set up shop this morning so we crawled from bed rather before my usual time and arrived in the centre of town just in time to see the sun rise behind the chateau. A beautiful spectacle, but my appreciation of it was somewhat tempered ten minutes later when I went to pay for our coffees to find that they'd marked us as tourists and charged three euros apiece for a long black.

So a word of advice: should ever you find yourself in la Tour d'Aigues at some point, in need of a coffee, do not go to the Café du Chateau because you too will be taken for a tourist - even worse, a foreign tourist - and will have to cash a few large-denomination travellers' cheques to pay for your breakfast.

Go instead to the café Zilia, where they will not rob you blind, and serve a pretty acceptable and very generous glass of white for the modest sum of 1€80 (the going non-tourist rate for a coffee, by the way), and which also happens to be just opposite l'Ange Gourmand - which I know I mentioned before, from our last trip down here in June, but which I have no hesitation in recommending again.

I got to have the salade au chevre roti au miel at last, and Margo ordered the roast (NZ) lamb with crême d'ail scented with rosemary, which almost made me regret my choice. Good, simple regional cooking: that can be very hard to find. The only criticism I would make is that their apple, peach and raspberry crumble is more a compôte: not enough streussel for my taste. So I'm picky, sue me.

The French, by the way, do not seem to go in for stag nights. They're definitely more into the morning pub crawl for what they call the enterrement de vie de garçon. I say this because as we watched the sun come up there were three young men and two women who'd obviously started even earlier than us going from bar to bar, and I met up with them again at the café as I got ready for the midday apéro: still semi-erect (that's vertical, capable of standing, not the other thing), at least approximatively. For a given value of "vertical", anyway.

So, we had to go out for dinner tonight: the hotel doesn't really do meals and there are no cooking facilities, so there you have it. As we also planned on getting slightly pissed we thought we'd better get a couple of bottles of wine (is it, by the way, polite to leave the empties in your hotel room? Or should we at least make an effort, and try to flush them down the loo?) so we headed off to Pertuis, which is the closest thing to a big town around these parts, and the proud possessor of a supermarket.

Being there, it seemed reasonable to look for somewhere to eat - at least, it seemed reasonable to me, despite it's being only 19:00, I thought, we can walk around a bit until it gets closer to dinner-time and there's bound to be all sorts of choice.

Like bloody hell. One restaurant that was offering what looked like reasonable, if a bit pricy food (but stuff that I can and do make myself, so that's ruled out), a couscous parlour, one or two proposing the standard steak/frites or magret de canard (boring! I am getting picky) and at least 18 pizzerias. Not interested, sorry. And on top of it, it was but 19:45, which is far too early to even think about eating, so we drove back and had dinner at l'Ange Gourmand.

Where, I'd like to point out, the guy recognised us: not from lunch (well, that too) but from June. I didn't think we did that much to mark us out, at least I cannot remember dancing naked on a table with an ostrich feather up my arse. Mind you, if I had done, I wouldn't, would I? He also, fairly rapidly, identified us as New Zealanders, and made a point of introducing us as such to everyone else. I suppose you can guess the main topic of conversation.

Sunday morning it was, exceptionally, free time for Margo, so we decided to go off and do touristy things: look at quaint Provençal villages, count chateaux, stuff like that. So after a quick breakfast at the bar, and an update on the score (5-0 at that time), we drove through to a place called Lourmarin to get our fill of kulcha.

Do not, by the way, make the mistake of thinking that Provence is pretty. It's not. It's savage, and harsh, and rugged and stark and all those other uncomfortable spiky adjectives (oh, and it rains more often than you might think, and the sky is not always blue, and there is a season for lavender): it also happens to be beautiful. Not the same thing.

Now not too far from us here in Savoie there's la cité de Conflans, a (heavily) fortified village up above Albertville. It's been well preserved, but it's pretty clear that it's more a doll's house than some place anyone actually lives.

Lourmarin, although it fairly evidently lives off the tourist trade (every second house is selling either antiques, crafty stuff or clothes, and I'd suggest you bring your own wine and a picnic lunch unless you really feel the urge for the authentic tourist experience of sitting out on the terrace of a bar somewhere, helping the owner to pay off a substantial proportion of his mortgage), is very evidently lived-in.

And despite what you might think, not everyone seems out to mulct you. By dint of wandering aimlessly we came across a little salon de thé which offered  what turned out to be an excellent lunch for 12€: quiche-style stuff with copious salad and a glass of wine, but well-executed and, for once, actually made on the premises as the punters came in. (Not that you could fit that many in at a time: 16 max, I'd say. Seated cosily.)

So I had a couple of slabs of wholemeal toast smeared with tapenade, on each of which a whole St. Marcellin had melted down. I am not a big fan of olives, I must admit, but it made a nice change from Vegemite.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Food For the Fearless ...

Despite my gloomiest forebodings Saturday turned out to be an absolutely glorious summery day: I thought they didn't make them like that anymore, but apparently I was mistaken. I'd made the usual arrangements and, after a quick tour of the market to pick up some of the last poivrons of the season and a baby pumpkin and some fresh chèvre and butter beans and a couple of extremely ripe mangos for Jerry, turned up at Cardinal's just in time for the final whistle to find Beckham, Bryan, and some young thing whom he introduced as Rugby Bimbo, in the middle of the scrum. God knows how he does it, at his age.

(Actually, it was explained to me, between he and Beckham, that it wasn't actually like that at all. She'd been innocently sitting there with a coffee and then the rugby crowd came in and Bryan found himself sitting next to her, and then she asked him to explain some of the finer points of the game ... as he knows about as much as I do about the matter ie SFA I hope she didn't rely too much on his answers. Not that they would have been outright lies as such - more, shall we say, optimistically creative fabrications.)

It's a nice place is Cardinal's, but I felt a bit out of place, encumbered as I was with two umbrellas and Beckham's pants (don't ask) and there were some extremely loud post-mortems going on, so after an ad hoc emergency meeting of the executive committee we adjourned to le Refuge for a bit of fresh air and blue sky (and someone must have tipped Pierre off, because there was no music). There I got filled in on all the gory details of France's 9 to 8 win over Wales, with the poor Welsh playing one man down (sent off for conspicuous thigh-fondling?), whilst Beckham occupied herself drooling enthusiastically over Pressing Man, who just happened to go past.

(He gets his name from the fact that his only visible means of support is wandering between tables handing out discount coupons offering 10% off your next dry-cleaning bill. Other than that he's in his mid-twenties and is, according to Beckham - our resident expert on such matters - "an insupportably sexy hunk". Now you know.)

All of this took us through till about 2pm, at which point hunger pangs set in amongst those who'd actually dragged themselves from their beds at some ungodly hour to watch the match whilst nursing a breakfast beer, so everyone else set off in search of a burger and I came home, for I had things to do. (Many of which, by dint of studious procrastination, I have managed to avoid actually doing. Congratulate me.)

Sadly this warm weather has only incited the grass, so rather than lazing idly all afternoon, as I'd rather hoped, it was back to the garden again for what I would very much like to be the last trim of the year. Then back to Stacey's, to return the mower and the favour: all that, plus a few glasses of vitamins in between filling the tank, meant that it was around 18:30 when I got home.

Where I found myself with some scallops on my hands, as will happen: luckily enough I'd spent some time scouring around for recipes (pre-emptive research - don't want to fall into a rut) so I was just about ready for that. Had some of the last peaches too, and those poivrons ... no wine is involved, which is pretty rare I know: if you really want to, try and stick some in somewhere, but I personally can't see anywhere it would really be a welcome addition. Get over it.

So assuming you're looking for a simple three-course meal that's not so swelegant that you feel obliged to dress for dinner, here goes.

First thing to do is to start the arrosto di maiale: take that neatly rolled pork shoulder roast you happen to have sitting around and stick it in an oval terrine (should be a snug fit), sprinkle it with herbes de provence and as much chopped garlic as you feel able to handle (at least four cloves, please), then pour milk over it, put the lid on and into the oven with it. It should take about an hour and a half but requires no further attention: you could maybe turn it once if you like, and I'd take the lid off for the last twenty minutes, but that's about it. So you might as well get the roast vegetables ready as well. (And trim some beans, why not, and put them in a saucepan with some chopped garlic and a lump of sugar. But don't start cooking them just yet, will you?)

Once all that is done, get the pastry ready for dessert. One and a half cups of flour, 150gm of butter in small dice, 80gm of sugar and milk to mix. Do not overmix it: just enough that you can actually shape it into a rough ball, then put that into the fridge for a bit. If you have to remove a bottle of white to make room for it, do so. And while it's still chilled, start drinking it.

Now you really need to take a couple of peaches, peel them and cut the flesh into dice and put those into a saucepan with some sugar - about 1/3 cup sounds right, for 500gm of peaches. Add 2 tbsp of lemon juice and heat gently until the peaches start to render their juice, then add a teaspoon of cornflour mixed with water, cinnamon, a couple of tablespoons of hot pepper jelly and a pinch of decent cayenne if you think it needs it, cook till thickened and set aside.

It may be that you do not have any hot pepper jelly: it's a pardonable omission, and easily corrected. I didn't have any either, but do not despair: Google is your friend. Just take a good ripe poivron rouge and two hot chili peppers (piment d'Espelette or jalapeno, whichever you happen to have or can easily obtain) and slice them into thin strips before simmering them in a cup of cider or white vinegar and a cup of sugar for about ten minutes. You can use either pectin or gelatine to set it: pectin is one of those things I don't have (actually, now that I think of it there is a small bottle of something at the back of the fridge, but that's just as likely to be rennet knowing my luck - and don't ask why we would have that in the fridge), but four sheets of gelatine did the trick nicely.

Depending on your tastes you might want to use more chili pepper, or add some cayenne, but do be careful of afterburn. And in any case, do remember to remove the seeds from the little sods. Not that the seeds are particularly hot or anything, they just get stuck in your teeth and they're not really aesthetic.

(Now that I have a pot of hot pepper jelly in the fridge, I shall have to work out what to do with it. Using a melon baller - une cuillière Parisienne - to make little balls of it as a garnish seems a good idea: I just have to find a suitable dish, one where the admittedly surprising spicy heat of the chilled ruby marbles would be welcome. Maybe the next time I do scallops ... you listening, Sophie?)

Lest you think I'd forgotten about the pastry, now would be a good time to roll it out to about 3mm thick and cut it into 10cm circles. I got nine such out of mine, which was good given that there are three of us: put them back in  the fridge and have another drink before starting the beans off, and attacking the scallops.

These are really quick: remove the coral and set it aside for the cat (only joking), then cut each scallop into thin slices (about 4mm is good) and set them aside while you get the marinade ready. Which is as simple as whisking together a quarter cup of fresh orange juice, 3tbsp of lemon juice, 2tbsp of cider or sherry vinegar and 1 tbsp each of soy sauce and oil with 1 tbsp finely chopped or grated ginger (how I wish I had a microplane grater!) and a small, very thinly sliced chili pepper. Divide that between two plates (Jerry won't eat scallops, remember?) and add the scallops: sprinkle with chopped mint. And just before you're going to eat it, sear the coral briefly in butter and add a little mound of that to each plate.

Little silken mouthfuls of sweet scallop bathed in cool spicy orange juice, what more could I ask for? Since you ask, peach empanadas, that's what. (But next time I might omit the soy sauce, because it gives the marinade a slightly muddy look, and perhaps substitute sesame oil for sunflower. I'll let you know how that works out.)

Whatever, the main course should have more or less looked after itself all this time, which is good, and once you've downed that everyone can probably bear to wait for ten minutes while you finish off dessert. (For heaven's sake, all you have to do is slice the meat and pour the juices over, arrange the vegetables around and stick the lot on the table. Not that big a deal.) Get the pastry disks out of the fridge and brush the edges with water, then divide the peach/pepper mixture amongst them and seal the edges like cornish pasties, trying heroically to avoid oozing. Then fry them on each side in hot oil - a minute or two per side should do the trick, until puffed and golden - fish them out, drain on kitchen paper (yes, cholesterol is good but you can have too much, you know) and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and, why not, a bit of cayenne if that floats your boat.

They are definitely best eaten hot as they come out of the pan, but Jeremy informs me that you can blast them in the microwave the next morning with some success. Sadly, I won't be making them again for another nine months, when peaches reappear on the stands at the market.

I should warn you that opinion was - if not exactly divided - somewhat mitigated about all that lot. Margo quite liked the scallops, but still prefers the classic flambé with white wine and cream. The pork is, of course, unbeatable, tender and juicy and full of the flavour of the garlic with which it gets so intimate, so no argument there. (But a word to the wise - do put the terrine in to soak as soon as practicable. Otherwise, removing the burnt-on milk will require a jackhammer.) And as for the empanadas, they were a definite hit with Jeremy, while Margo found the pastry too heavy. Mind you, any pastry is too heavy for her, with the sole exception of filo. And that would be rather tricky to do, and also obviate the whole point of the things if you ask me.

Whatever, this must be one of the most beautiful times of the year over here. Towards the end of the day the sunlight comes in almost horizontally to the garden; filtered through the trees it's golden and slow, almost liquid, and at a pinch you could start to believe Pratchett's idea, about how it really travels only a bit faster than the speed of sound. What with the red and gold leaves that haven't yet fallen (and gone all slimy) on the relatively immaculate (and now acceptably short) lawn, it really makes for a wonderful Sunday.

And now the stars are out, cold hard points in a deep night-blue sky, with a warm breeze around, and I can almost believe it's still summer. A dream that will doubtless be shattered in short order, but for the time being please allow me to keep my illusions.

I note that you beat the Australians quite convincingly, which means that it's France vs NZ for the final, or so I'm told. I am very glad that I will be away in the Lubéron for that match, preferably somewhere sufficiently remote from civilization that the poor peasants have no better use for TVs than as drinks cabinets. And don't anyone feel obliged to text me with the result, I'm sure I'll find out one way or another.

The plan is that we pack the van Thursday night, pick Jerry up from the lycée on Friday and drop him off at home before heading off. He's happy because it's the start of the vacances de Toussaint - two weeks holiday, the lucky lad - and he may be vaguely planning on a party whilst we're away. If so, he can bloody well think again. On the other hand, I suppose I'd better make sure that there's something in the house that he can cook for himself for two nights: wouldn't want the poor lad to starve, now would we?

Briefly, and quite irrelevantly, in the "Names I have difficulty believing are real" department: from a report on  a session of the English Court of Appeal comes this little gem - "Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, who was sitting with Sir John Thomas ..." Some things you just couldn't - or wouldn't want to - invent.

(I obviously have far too much time on my hands, or too many otherwise unoccupied neurons, for I have just come up with something else to do with hot pepper jelly: use an apple corer to get cylinders of the stuff, slice those into disks, and put each one on a teeny round of toast, with a hemisphere of goat cheese atop each one. I shall definitely try that soon.)

Cruelly yanked from the lascivious arms of Morpheus (hey, they're my dreams) this morning at some ungodly hour as my phone went PONK to say Sophie said hello (OK, so why is she awake at 4:23? And exactly why does she feel that I should be woken to discover this?) and then ripped, all too shortly afterwards, from uneasy slumber by the sound of the Lyonnaise des Eaux performing "Concerto for Three Jackhammers and a Digger" just outside the front door, as they connected Stéphane's new project to the sewers.

Which, as someone seems to have flipped the switch and turned Autumn on in spades, did not do a great deal for my mood. (I am not joking: literally overnight the leaves have all gone yellow, it's started to rain, and it's down to 10° max during the day. Lucky you, living in a temperate climate. Humbug.)

It didn't exactly get any better later, for I had the brilliant (bad?) idea of taking the Livebox back to Orange to get it replaced, given that the VoIP telephone line had suddenly become nowt but noise. Not to mention the problems with WiFi ... whatever, they plugged it into the little testbed and started the diagnostics - which of course it failed, given that I'd changed the admin login and password, and the subnet - said "Sorry squire, she's knackered, here's a new one", and I happily stuffed it in the car.

So far the only way I can get it to recognise the ADSL connection is by disabling the Wifi (OK, I can live with that, for the time being) and VoIP still hasn't managed to hook up. Only been 90 minutes so far since it managed to connect durably mind you, so I suppose I shouldn't be too concerned. Said he, sarcastically.

Whatever, I'm going off to sling a pair of knickers and a toothbrush into the old Compaq 286SLE carry-bag that serves me as an overnight bag and make sure I've got all the required chargers and things in there: must remember to take a spare CF card for the camera as well, nothing worse than getting somewhere picturesque and discovering that you can't take any photos 'cos the card's full and anyway the battery is on its last legs. I'll let you know how the weekend goes: Margo will be busy, but I'll have plenty of time to get out and about - so long as it doesn't persist down the entire time, forcing me to stay reluctantly in some louche bar. Of which, from memory, there are a certain number at la Tour d'Aigues, so that's me set then.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

All Downhill From Now On ...

The usual suspects ...
Ah me, the morning after the night before ... only counted eight bottles though, and I know for a fact that a fair amount of one of those went into the food rather than into us, so that's alright then. Sadly there's one in the heap that has no label: I say "sadly" because that means I can't rush out and buy some more, for it was wonderful.

Honey and flowers: Sophie got it at some point from her directeur, Norbert (yes, some people really do get saddled with names like that), who in turn got it from some little vigneron of his acquaintance somewhere. Note to self: get the address of that man.

Today the clouds are lifting and the sun is making an admittedly timid appearance, kind of a shame in a way as I can now see the snow down to about 1100m on the Belledonnes across the valley from us, and on the Chartreuse off to the west. Good thing I suppose that the Arclusaz just behind is still wreathed in cloud, seeing that covered with snow would be too depressing.

The meal turned out rather well, thanks for asking: mind you it was a good thing I had the afternoon free to get it all prepped. The honey and thyme with the filo was indeed a good idea, and I was lucky enough to score some asparagus (Spanish) and snow peas (Kenyan, so much for buying locally) at Carrefour, which made a nice little stir-fry to go with the scallops. But I would like to remark that plaiting sole fillets is definitely a tedious job.

Also, that having a small kitchen and a limited number of bowls and stuff forces one to be rather more organised than perhaps one would like. Prepping is all very well, but when you get the salsa ready in one bowl and the cubed aubergine slathered in olive oil in another and the sliced apples ready for the tarte tatin in yet another, you're stiff out of luck when it comes to finding a bowl to make the pastry in because the scallops are draining over the very last one and anyway seeing as the filo shells are laid out on the table there's no place to roll the damn stuff out anyway.

But if nothing else, I have at least taught Stacey that the scallop is not some fierce marine creature which will, in a last spiteful act, try to poison you if you eat it.

Whatever, I got out of the affair reasonably lightly, I think: a book (a cookbook, of course) and a little chocolate-making kit from which, Sophie meaningfully remarked as she handed it over, she expected to see some results before Christmas. So I know what I have to do. Cue a trip down to Grenoble to get some proper couverture, for one thing.

The little book was on something that's rather à la mode over here these days, to wit the apéro dinatoire, which is basically an excuse to get together, drink and eat finger food. The idea is that you make lots of different food, preferably with interesting contrasts of colours and textures, and serve it in amusingly small amounts in special spoons, on bamboo skewers, on pita bread or in those bloody ubiquitous verrines.

Doing it properly is a lot of work I would think, but I can see that the end result could be quite stunning. I did rather like the idea of that ratatouille with quails' eggs, and I can see the skewers of scallops with beetroot chips going down well, but I'm not sure about the minestrone with strawberries.

Still, it's set the old brain to working again: might be an idea to go back and take a fresh look at some of the rustic bistrot food I've eaten over all these years, with an eye to doing something a bit different with it. For some strange reason the first thing that comes to mind was a meal I remember at Anonnay a long while ago in a little restaurant that Jacques discovered with that mysterious talent he has for wandering into places, treating the owners as though he's known them for years, and then expecting good food to arrive at the table.

I've not yet known him to make a wrong choice, so whatever it is, it works. Fair enough, the habitués were either truckies or tradesmen, which is usually a pretty good indicator, but whatever, the food was extremely good. I can recall an enormous salad with hot crispy bacon and fried quails' eggs, but the thing that rather set it apart were the little pyramids moulded of chevre mashed with cream and finely chopped spring onion,  then rolled in paprika and chili (I think). This sounds like a pretty good starting point for something nice, to me.

While we're on the subject, we had clients all day - Bruno and Clément from Sorhéa - and went out to lunch au Barjots, where I actually had a meal that inspired me. To write this, anyway. It's apparently become THE trendy place to eat in Chambéry, which always tends to put me off somewhat: a converted marbrerie, I find it too busy and too noisy for starters. You can put that down to grumpy old age, if you like.

Apart from the noise, and the rather random service (the Frogs would say aléatoire, a pleasing word I think), my real problem with the place is that it's merely competent. The entrée was what they called - with no apparent justification, as far as I can make out - a carpaccio de potiron, lardons poelés, croutons et chantilly au cardamom. For one thing, a carpaccio consists of wafer-thin slices of whatever it might be: it is not a soup. Second, even if you have stuck a shot of liquid nitrogen at the bottom so that it fizzes interestingly as you take a spoonful, you don't serve it in a tall glass the same diameter as the spoon you're supposed to eat it with.

Oh, third thing is that you don't serve it with the beers you ordered to drink before lunch.

I'll grant you that the bright orange colour and the contrast of textures wasn't bad, shame that everything sank to the bottom.

Follow that with coquelet roti et ecrasé des pommes de terre à l'huile d'olive aromatisé aux truffes: half a roasted spring chicken at one end of a rectangular plate, an oval of greenish crushed spud half a mile away at the other end, and a thin line of rosemary-flavoured gravy and chopped chives joining the two. Personally I have my doubts that a truffle had ever been within spitting distance of the olive oil, because I would have recognised the smell (rotting dog, if you're interested), but that's probably beside the point.

Which is is that it looked nice, but was completely unmemorable as food. Just - competent. And that's boring, and a bit sad. (And I'll try to spare you the dessert: a contemporary remake of the matafan would be very welcome in these parts, but not if it involves a heavy and uninspiring beignet.)

If I'm going to actually pay someone to cook for me, I would rather like to be excited, thanks very much, or discover something I didn't know before. I can still remember the flavours of that lunch in Anonnay from fifteen years ago, but I've already forgotten today's. Which is a shame. Next time I have to go I'll just order the little pot of foie gras with toast and confiture de figues, which isn't bad even if it does lack a bit of pepper (which, for some strange reason, is not on the table) for my taste.

On the brighter side, went off to l'Atelier with Margo for lunch today and discovered that not only are their tapas and tartines (love the one with chevre mixed with coriander and mint, topped with shrimp, that I had a while back with Sophie) rather nice, they also do a pretty mean burger. Which you can eat with your fingers, as god intended. And unusually, the chef (who has, incidentally, worked with Bocuse and the like) helps with the service and mingles with the patrons. Makes up for yesterday's experience.

NASA: missed again
Anyway, for once Méteo France seem to have got it right when they promised us a fine week. Well, half right, anyway - that is to say we wake up in thick fog, and then mid-afternoon the clouds disappear and we have the rest of the day under brilliant sunshine. Unfortunately that "rest of the day" is getting noticeably shorter: the sun goes down behind the Chartreuse some time around 19:30, but at least the sunsets are spectacular. (Or as the French might say, crépusculaire - which, as I've said before, has always brought to mind some sort of vile skin disease. To my mind, anyway.)

And even if we don't quite make it into the 20s, the temperature still hovers around 19° for much of the day. Which means that chez Bimler, it's about as hot inside the house as out - or alternatively, the other way around. Depends on whether you're a half-full or half-empty person, I guess. Problem with having a big old house built back in the days when the word isolation meant you were isolated, not that you were insulated. Mind you, from memory a lot of older houses in NZ were no better - our old place in Russell Street certainly wasn't, with tongue-in-groove, gib-board and corrugated iron being the only things between us and the elements - but at least we didn't need it quite so much, lacking the extremes of temperature.

Nights it gets a bit more problematic, and we really will have to start lighting the fire soonish, and then fire up the boiler I suppose. The dog is certainly feeling it, her arthritis is giving her hell. Has great problems getting up and down the stairs from the courtyard these days - partly, let it be admitted, due to the fact that she seems to be going senile.

Gratuitous picture of a cat
Whatever, tonight in "Caring Science For The Feeble-Minded", we'll talk at some length about the culinary implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, as illustrated (in crayon) by Schrödinger's Cute Kitten. Which may be resumed in one word: none. Whatsoever. (Yes, small-minded people, technically speaking that's two words, but only because of the full stop which is a punctuation mark added for emphasis and therefore doesn't count.)

So anyway, according to this German fellow at the bar the other day (a gifted but an undisciplined thinker, if you ask me, and a trifle the worse for drink to boot - also had a very strong accent and tended to dribble in his beer, which I do find rather distressing), if, for the sake of argument, you took - say, Sophie, and a salad - and locked them in a room together (with, and this is apparently the important part, nobody watching), they would stay there in a state of quantum flux wherein the two possibilities - of Sophie's eating the salad, and vice versa - coexisted, until an observer collapsed the soufflé wave-form by opening the door and finding Sophie cleaning the salad bowl of the last bit of dressing with a piece of bread.*

Which, incidentally, was not present in the room initially, which immediately struck me as being a difficulty with the whole concept: unless of course you're willing to entertain the possibility that it just suddenly appeared through a wormhole from a parallel universe to fill the gap left by the salad. A bit far-fetched, I feel, and I said as much to him - it was not appreciated and we did not, I'm afraid, part on the best of terms. (But you'll be happy to know that the judicious application of turpentine has succeeded in eliminating all but the most tenacious stains on my suede boots. At least, they're more or less the same colour all over now.)

(I have another, more fundamental objection - which I tactfully refrained from voicing - which, simply put, is that if they're locked in there together, what's to stop them watching one another? And even if they promise not to, the cat will be lurking in there, hoping for something to eat. All of which would seem to render the outside observer redundant. But I'm willing to admit that I might have missed something.)

Anyway, I say bollocks to all that, because I know perfectly well that within thirty seconds of closing the door on her and a salad, without so much as a single furtive glance behind there will be a clean salad bowl and just maybe a few left-over leaves, neatly wrapped in tin-foil in the fridge. (Assuming, of course, that they were locked in the kitchen, and not the bathroom.)

Next time we might take another look at the General Theory of Relativity, and examine whether or not it actually explicitly rules out the possibility of an accelerated, extremely frightened lettuce travelling faster than light.

*132 words to a single-sentence paragraph is not bad, although not a personal best. And no, I don't get paid for it. Although I did once get an award for imaginative punctuation.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Just One Last Little Wafer, Sir ...

We went off walking our geriatric dog the other day and as we came up alongside the stream, just under Rémi's place, (her favourite place for a good bowel motion, for reasons which escape me) noted with surprise the presence of a couple of Kubotas in the bottom of the garden. (These, like Hoovers or Xerox, have become a generic term. Unfortunately generics are different between languages, so the French call a forklift a "Fenwick", and Kubota apparently sell vast quantities of diggers in ole Yurrup. But "Hoover" and of course fridge, seem to be universal. Funny old thing, language.)

But I digress, as usual. The stream is "managed" by the two mairies of St Pierre and St Jean, and they have decided that the diversoirs or artificial waterfalls along its length, which help to break the flow and reduce the risk of flooding, have got bogged up, and need some maintenance - no need to change the spark plugs yet, but emptying and deepening, stuff like that.

An entirely innocent proposition, but the only feasible access to the stream along its length is through the gardens of various folk (like us, for instance) and even though the communes have the right to send people in to do whatever is required, you really would think they'd have had the common decency to inform people of what was happening.

Think again. The first Rémi knew about it was on coming home from work to find the diggers parked there in the garden and a couple of trees chopped down and neatly sawed up.

I suppose we'll find out at some point if they need to go through our land to do a few extra bits and pieces: probably from the screeching of metal on stone as they try to get a digger through a gate that's just a tad too small.

Whatever, this afternoon I'd scheduled what will hopefully be the last cut of the year for the lawn, and sadly I was on schedule so that actually got done. Probably just as well, had I left it later it would have been too late and I've had been mowing jungle. Unfortunately part of the deal (whereby I get to use her mower) is that I mow Stacey's lawn, so as a man of honour (if I can't get out of it, that is) I could see no way to avoid that. Not without faking a heart attack, anyway. So I have mown two tall, soggy lawns today, and I hope that somewhere this is noted on the credit side of my karmic ledger, because Stacey has some really wicked nettles.

And of course I was wearing my platonic shorts, so-called because they are in fact closer to the Platonic ideal of what shorts should be than to actual, physical, shorts. In that they are mostly gaps, held together by thread. Occasionally. With a hole at the top, and rather more at the bottom, through two of which my legs emerge. Platonic or not (shorts, not legs), they would not have protected me: I really should have worn a full hazmat suit.

I had planned maybe a barbecue for my birthday if ever it turns out fine next weekend, but it was just to be us. In my dreams, anyway. I can see I shall have to rethink that: Bryan and Beckham have invited themselves, as have Sophie and Sév, so I might just have to cook a three-course dinner for eight. And Beckham suggested that it would be a really good idea to do it at Stacey's, because then they could get there by bicycle. And doubtless cycle home after midnight. By candlelight, no doubt. So sweet.

I have to admit that's an interesting proposition and doubtless good practice for me: if I can cook a decent dinner in Stacey's excuse for a kitchen I can do it anywhere. It will limit my choices somewhat in the menu department (think, do what you can ahead of time) but that's no bad thing: discipline is apparently good for one. I shall have to think that one over very seriously. Might even ask Stacey (I think that would be polite, don't you?).

In any case, the idea of the barbecue may well have to be abandoned: obviously I've been thinking too hard about it, and so the weather is supposed to go titsup on Thursday. Bit of a shame, but can't hope for too much. So I asked Sophie to think about menu suggestions, and promptly at about 5am I got an SMS containing her idea of a simple meal: start off with coquilles St-Jacques, followed by tresses de poisson, beurre blanc à la badiane (with verdures fraiches du marché to accompany them, evidently) and then a simple dessert léger aux fruits du saison. Why is that woman thinking of food in the wee hours of the morning?

Whatever the reason, that does, I suppose, leave me some leeway in the dessert department. I don't want to work too hard (hey, it is my birthday) so maybe a simple tarte tatin with some blackberries thrown in for good measure, and a nectarine tea-cake. These should satisfy her urges.

I foresee a couple of hours in the kitchen getting that lot ready: at least most of it can be done ahead of time and will only take a few minutes to finish off on the day. Dessert will probably take longest, quite honestly. And for once someone else can worry about the wine - although I do happen to have a couple of bottles of that Tasmanian chardonnay hidden away in the downstairs fridge.

Now Waverly Root (I really would not have wanted that name for myself) once had the pleasant conceit of dividing France into three culinary regions (plus Paris, of course), rather as Caesar divided it into three administrative ones. He did this by the arbitrary, but amusingly simple, procedure of classifying places on the basis of their primary cooking fat; France is thus divided into the realms of butter, lard (or goose fat) and oil, plus Paris.

A nice enough idea, and I can imagine the fat old sod sitting down to a twelve course lunch with his editor (this was some time ago, you understand, before budgetary restraints started to spoil the atmosphere, and in Paris), and saying, all three chins wobbling with glee and grinning like a bishop that's found a fresh choirboy under his pillow, "I say Bernard, I've got a bloody brilliant idea for a book ..."

"The Food Of France", which incidentally came out in the same year as I, worked out alright in the end, because he actually wrote rather well and did a very good job of communicating his love for food, for the food of France in particular and France itself in general, and by an odd quirk of fate it was one of the first few food books I picked up in Bennett's Bookstore all those years ago, and thus partly reponsible for my own love of food. Despite the fact that there's not a single recipe in it: the book's more about destinations than the trip, but if I may stretch the metaphor a bit more, if you know enough geography you can often reconstruct the voyage.

Which is why a number of my favourites come from that book, despite them not actually being in it. If you know what I mean. And they are mine, because given an endpoint everyone will work out how to get there in their own way. (Well, those that bother, anyway.) Those coquilles St-Jacques à la bretonne, anyone?

He was an American of course: a journalist of the old school who came over to France early on in the last century, fell in love with the place and stayed. And managed to explain in his books just why he fell in love, which may be why he got the Legion d'Honneur, and for which I'm very grateful anyway. A posthumous toast to a bon vivant and great food writer, although godnose why today, it's neither the anniversary of his death nor his birthday. Just because I feel like it, then. And you lot can put up with it.

Anyway, the sun's going down behind the Bauges in a sky the colour of which is what they invented the word "cerulean" for, and I have a couple of duck breasts to trim and slap in the pan to sear before browning the spaetzle in the fat and getting a salad ready.

A pleasant not-such-a-surprise Monday night, when my mates Jean-Pierre and Denis from the SNCF made the trip down from Paris for a rustic dinner with us. That was not in fact the sole reason for their presence, we had work to discuss today and just thought we might as well profit from the occasion, but it still made for a good evening. Debauch was not on the menu, and we did not overdose on wine. And it was a very nice thought of J-P's to bring me a jar of honey from his own hives. (Yes, perhaps SNCF staff do have too much free time ...)

So we left the office early on Tuesday, as Margo wanted to get up to Alvertville before 19:00: that being the case, it was only natural that we should get down to the voie rapide to find it jammed solid. Stands to reason, really. Of course, the woman ahead of us on the roundabout chose to park right in the middle so that there was no way I could head back up to the office and whip through the back roads to the other side of Chambery, so we had to go through the centre ... it would probably have been quicker, if a damn site more frustrating, to have stayed on the VRU.

Given the time of day, all the old doddlers were out, the mums were doing the school run ... it took us over an hour to get home, rather than the normal 25 minutes. Some days you just shouldn't get out of bed.

And to finish the week, this morning marked the arrival of autumn in no uncertain terms. Quite literally overnight. Rain in the evening (luckily we'd brought the wood up out of the garden from all those bloody acacias Margo cut down when she was playing with her chainsaw) and definitely cool this morning. Oh, there'll be more beautiful days to come, but the Indian summer is over and we'll just have to wait for April for the temperatures to start climbing back above 20°.

Whatever, I'd better go and start getting things ready for this small feast tomorrow, before slumping down to vegetate in front of the box. At the very least I can get the little coupelles of filo ready for the scallops: I have this idea floating in my head about sprinkling gros sel, thyme and a little drizzle of liquid honey on the buttered sheets as I stack them prior to baking. I'll try it anyway, and doubtless get the verdict tomorrow night from the food critics.

(Oh yeah, I found out about the vibrator. It was old age that did for it - that and being thrown into a rucksack for a back-packing trip around Europe. Apparently the arrival in Venice was a great disappointment. I really had no idea they were that delicate.)