Sunday, February 27, 2011

More musings on food ...

It's after midnight, we've just got back from a nice dinner out with Joc & Hervé (and the look on her face when she finally got the joke about Monica Lewinsky and not talking with your mouth full was totally priceless) and it's absolutely pissing down with rain outside.

Not to worry, I just read David Lebovitz's post on bread, Picard, frozen foods and other topics, and not only did it inspire me to do something I very rarely do ie post a comment, it made me realise that I'd rather strangle myself with my own intestines (or preferably someone elses, if anyone's offering: let's face it, if you strangle yourself with your own intestines you're definitely going to die of one thing or another, whereas if they belong to someone else there's always the chance of a slip-up, and at least the undertaker will have a lot less work to do to make you look pretty) than buy and eat a frozen ready-made "meal".

Now don't get me wrong, we have frozen food: there's always a sachet of frozen peas in the freezer (except the other night, when I really wanted some), and I will buy frozen fish fillets if what I'm going to cook won't suffer too much from the inevitable loss of texture, and because I'm a cheapskate I buy frozen coquilles St-Jacques at €5 for 400gm rather than undeniably more luscious fresh ones at €25/kg. Nor am I kitted out to make ice-cream, so that too we buy and stick in the freezer.

There's also cherries in there, waiting to find heaven in a clafouti, and leftover pork that needs mincing and turning into steamed pork bun filling, and berries from the garden and other places, and bits of left-over curry or soup ... and usually some bread, just in case, some grated cheese, a tub marked "5-spice simmering stock; chicken" and a rather scary ice-cream tub with "Do NOT open" scrawled on it. And a popsicle lobster or two, some puréed stone fruit for a spring-time bavarois au fromage frais and maybe a leg of lamb for the next barbecue.

A ziploc bag of parsley too, because when I buy an enormous bunch at the market for 1€ there is absolutely no way I can use it all up over the next few days, and I'm not going to chuck it, am I? And little pots of duck fat from the last confit, a couple of muffins waiting for the right occasion, some hampe for a curry, and a big icy blob at the back that I'm honestly a bit too frightened to risk disturbing.

But I cannot understand how people can cold-bloodedly go out and buy a frozen pizza, or a poelée des legumes chinoises, or a boeuf bourguignon with a picture of a smiling Bocuse on the packet, then sit down, reheat it, and pretend to enjoy it.

Not that it's necessarily foul to the point of sticking your fingers discreetly down your throat at the table, but you can be certain that it won't be great, and I just cannot see the point. When for half the price you can buy the bits (frozen if you must) and put them together yourself.

Unless of course you belong to the Attila the Nun school of cookery - that's the same one that invented the barbecue when he accidentally set fire to a convent from which he'd absentmindedly forgotten to evacuate the nuns beforehand. An unfortunate incident, I admit, and gave him rather a bad press. (Although all things considered, it may have turned out for the best. Even if, given their age, boiling would have been better - from a strictly culinary point of view.)

And while we're on the topic of meat, only the weak, the elderly, mentally handicapped or oppressively poor seem to go to the butchers these days. Most people stock up on meat when they go to the supermarket: I admit that I buy pork there, because there's not much point looking for it at a hallal butcher's, but everything else comes from Mr B. Who does a roaring trade, amongst those of the quartier and a few interlopers like myself (but after 16 years of custom I think I'm accepted): but I suspect that many independent butchers will die off with their customers, who mostly seem to average about 93.

Getting back to the subject of prepared food, you can also buy the stuff in tins, which is hardly better. Although I must admit that if you're willing to pay the money for a good one, a tinned choucroute royale from a good brand is better than no choucroute at all. But I can still remember our first - and only - experience 20 years ago with tinned ravioli, which were so absolutely disgusting that, between fits of dry retching, we forced them at gunpoint back into the tin and carted it down 5 flights of stairs from the apartment (weren't going to take the risk of being stuck in the lift with the things) to hide them in the rubbish skip.

(You can, on the specialty - read expensive - shelves at the supermarket, buy enormous glass jars full of what claims to be le cassoulet authentique de Castelnaudary, or some such. It is true that there are definitely beans in there, and for all I know, some duck. Given the price of the stuff, I am unable to inform you further.)

The French also have le fast-food, which is almost invariably a burger. Or a kebab. There is not, to my knowledge, a nationwide chain of kebab joints, so as a general rule you can be assured of a relatively decent experience if you buy one of those (certainly if you go into the Arab quartiers, but I have been horribly disappointed at Marseilles where they insist on stuffing the things with frites and some will even use baguettes): with a few honorable exceptions, the only burgers you can get will be at Flunch or Quick or M*D*nalds, and bear about the same relationship to food as a snuff flick to sex.

The gilded ICBVM of Myans
Actually, there I do exaggerate a little. In the bigger cities you can usually find an ephemeral sandwich bar or some such which will do something strikingly good, but just don't expect them to be there the next month. Mind you, "Adelaide Cookies" has been around in Grenoble for years ...

I still think the three best burger joints I have ever known would have to be the old Regent Theatre in Palmerston, the National Park burger place (fond memories of the Yeti-burger), or the dump at Taihape where the Newmans coach stopped en route from Wellington to points north. Mind you, that could be just nostalgia cutting in. Must step up the meds.

Do you recall the fuss, many years ago, when that pipe-smoking prat José Bové trashed a McDonalds as a symbolic act against American globo-corporatism (or something like that)? Never mind that all the "food" was locally sourced, and the employees were all locals ... so where is he now, when Kentucky Fucked Duck has started to open outlets in France? OK, I admit that we did once go to a McDo's in Hong Kong because Malyon wanted food that was recognisable as such and didn't have to be interrogated as to its antecedents (she was only four, cut her some slack), but I swear that if the only alternative had been KFC we'd have eaten something scrumptious from the gutter instead.

Stumbled across a place the other day - to be totally honest it wasn't quite as accidental as all that, for Sophie pointed me in its direction: a sort of discount barn that stocks end of runs and unshifted stock and suchlike, and amongst all the crud they have an excellent wine selection. Apparently they have deals with vignerons to take the last few palettes of whatever it may be that the wholesalers didn't want, stuff like that ... as a result they have a good selection of decently-old wine at remarkable prices.

I am a cat, and I enjoy my life. You?
And there it was that I found a whole lot of Australian stuff: 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (Limestone Coast, I think) which was alarmingly drinkable, and a swag of others which I really must go back and try Real Soon Now. At only 4€ the bottle, it's a steal.

In other news, the February school holidays have started, which means two things and neither of them good: Jerry's moved back in for two weeks before heading off on his stage, and holiday-makers are either coming or going, searching for the fabled snow. Which means that the autoroute is absolutely ghastly (three lanes of turds in molasses) and the nationale is merely vile. Not helped by the fact that apparently every doddery old sod on the planet has decided to escape from his retirement home and spend his childrens' inheritance on an enormous camping car. Which he will then drive, in a sort of flock with others of his kind, at about 70k - so that the airspeed doesn't peel the paint off, I suppose.

All of which meant that my usual trip into Chambéry took about twice as long as usual, for even the doddery old farts are not stupid enough to take the autoroute under such conditions, and some sort of low animal cunning leads them to take the teeny departmentales which I have the habit of frequenting in these circumstances.

Breakfast of champions
So I was kind of pissed off when I finally did arrive, and my mood was not improved on finding out that the wine shop had closed five minutes before I arrived to stock up for the week.

Whatever, Cardinal's  is still there, and a glass of blanc de Gascogne does a lot to cheer one up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Literary Moment ...

OK, so yet another frickin tyre wheezes its last on me. Is it something I've done, words perhaps best left unspoken? I'm seriously starting to ask myself these questions, which is probably not a good sign.

I mean all I did was head down from the office to Carrefour on Thursday, and a couple of hours later, when I'm back up working busily away, some bstard  comes along to ask me if I'm aware that one of my tyres is flat.

Which is rather a stupid question because if I had been aware of it I'd have done something about it, wouldn't I? It's the sort of remark a Percy would make. (Which is, when you think about it, not bad as insults go. "You're such a Percy", whilst not actually vicious, is definitely debilitating. Saps the self-esteem.)

Whatever, cue a quick visit to the guy in the office next door to borrow his jack because mine folded up under the car last time I had to use it and of course the buggers at the garage didn't get around to replacing it, then a trip down to Feu Vert to organise new tyres and finally the pleasure of heading home not exceeding 80 kph, this being the maximum the joke spare tyres found in most cars these days are rated for.

Although looking at all the traffic there was on the roads - school holidays have started up in Paris and absolutely everyone who pôssibly can seems to have hopped in their car and headed, lemming-like, down here to get in some skiing on gravel, for there's sod-all snow - I might not have gone much faster on the autoroute anyway.

So just what the hell is a "glace portative"? Literally it would be "portable ice", which seems pretty pointless, so I'm willing to guess it just means ice-cream inna cone that you can take away, rather than in a bowl that you must consume on the premises (because they want their bowls back, and probably no longer believe that a good fairy flies around town collecting ice-cream bowls).

I suppose it must have been a pretty big deal back in the day (like, around 1910): the concept of selling people cones, rather than lending them bowls. Which the fairies never brought back.

A heartfelt thank you to the small gods of TV for "The Almighty Johnsons". Thanks also for "Mad Dogs", and "Bones", and "The Mentalist" ... Friday night is couch potato overdose night around here, it's nothing or a double helping apparently.

Will kill for bugnes
Sophie's buggered off to Brest for the weekend, and at the time of writing Bryan is booked in to do a couple of lengths of the lac du Bourget: quel bummer! I am faced with the dismal prospect of a dry Saturday (for rarely do I drink to excess on my lonesome). Things are coming to a sad pass when you have to organise an impromptu pint a couple of weeks in advance.

Jeremy is earning pocket money by helping the neighbours, Stéphane and Emily. I think Steph must be a frustrated Monopoly player, because he's slowly buying up the entire quartier: they acquired three houses over the past seven years or so and have just bought a fourth, one that's been empty since the big roof-removing storm years ago. To be honest, he's not happy unless he's renovating something, and Emily doesn't mind (to say that she actively encourages it might be going a bit far) 'cos it keeps him out of her hair.

So right now they're removing internal walls and getting rid of everything that came with the place, and that's where Jerry comes in. A bit of youthful muscle to lug stuff around. Got blisters on blisters, poor thing.

Well, at least Cardinal's have managed to redeem themselves somewhat. Not only were there plenty of nibbles to go around, but I also managed to wheedle the WiFi access code out of the hot blonde waitress. (It's 20677AB80D, should you want to know.)

I would like to point that this does not mean that I'll be spending Saturday mornings in future surfing porn in a bar (whilst doubtless surreptitiously ogling the aforesaid waitress):  it did, however, let Bryan and I settle the vexed issue of exactly who it was that wrote "Tom Jones", thanks to a quick google with the phone.

The answer, of course, is Henry Fielding. You may well think that a) I should have known that (guilty as charged, m'lud) and b) it would have been quicker to have rung Margo and asked, in which case you'd be dead wrong because when I came home I did in fact ask and she said "oh, wasn't it Andrews?". An understandable confusion of the artiste and his oeuvre, for Fielding did also write "Joseph Andrews", but that's hardly comforting when you're sitting in a bar playing double or quits and the topic is English lit.

Why "Tom Jones"? Oddly enough, Bryan brought up the topic of wenches, and I quite reasonably pointed out that to qualify as a wench you had to be a) demonstrably female, b) under 30 and c) have breasts that threaten at any moment to burst from confinement and quite possibly devastate the neighbourhood. (Being able to say "lawks" with a straight face would be a plus.) He had to agree that there was justice in that remark, and casting around for examples came up with the name (which I've now forgotten) of an actress from the film "Tom Jones" - a film which, from memory at least, was full of them. Wenches, that is. Not exploding breasts.

Hence the nagging wish to be sure as to the identity of the breast-obsessed author of the work in question. Personally I was certain it wasn't Smollet, who was Bryans' other suggestion. And give us credit, we'd both ruled out Swift.

Then, having little else to do apart from snag another bowl of nibbles and get another couple of glasses of white, he proceeded to regale me with a story that should surely have been entitled "Cunning linguists stay smarter longer": it seems that some brain-bothering boffins have demonstrated that bilingualism saves you from dementia. Their theory is that the mental struggle required to juggle a couple of languages keeps the old cortex agile or something: personally I'm more inclined to believe in Jeeves' theories as to the beneficient effects of fish.

And in any case the term "struggle" hardly applies to either of us: Margo maltreats French with casual brutality, and I long ago wrestled it to the ground and administered a good spanking, and it now does more or less what I want.

What with all that we stayed rather longer than planned, for there was some improvised street theatre when the SAMU and the pompiers turned up with blue lights flashing and all, followed by the fire engine with the great big cherry-picker. Then firemen's heads started popping out of the windows on the top floor of one of the old hôtels opposite, and we started to consider the possibility of opening a book on its being a jumper, or simply someone too grossly obese to be carted down the stairs.

Which kept us amused over yet another bowl or two of pretzels, and even more wine, which has to be a good thing. Keeps the service industry ticking over, for one thing.

But wandering around up at Montbenoit this afternoon, I do have to wonder what the future has lined up for us? Every small village around here seems to be weaponising religious statuary, turning them into pocket ICBVMs*. This is not looking good.

On the brighter side, I have discovered that you can do some wonderful things with a St-Marcellin. This is, in case you're wondering, a small round cheese that comes from a tad south of Grenoble: when properly ripe and attained apotheosis it's basically clotted cream inside a thin skin, smells like shit and tastes like an angel's armpit. Possibly an acquired taste.

Should you happen to have some of them floating around, you could usefully sacrifice one for a gratin. I started out by frying up some fatty bacon bits, then adding some 1" chunks of potatoes and the same amount of sliced leeks: when that lot's started to go golden add 300ml of beef stock and put it into the oven along with - let's say - the roast chicken you were planning on.

After 40 minutes or so the stock should have reduced and much of it absorbed: I do not believe that you can have too much of a good thing and so at this point I added a couple of heaping spoonfuls of sour cream and back into the oven with it for another ten minutes, along with the tarte tatin.

After that, use a spoon to put globs of the St-Marcellin all over it and let it finish for another ten minutes whilst you take a well-earned break. It's not half bad.

*For those of you without a copy of Jane's All The Worlds Missiles, this is an InterContinental Ballistic Virgin Mary. Payload usually measured in rosaries.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sex and food - well, food mostly ...

Well, here I am slowly sipping a glass of calva in the armchair and wondering where the hell the week's gone. Nowhere good, that's for sure. That's the problem with weeks these days: just not enough time in them. Someone, somewhere, is doing a poor job and skimping on the seconds.

Don't try telling me you can't get the wood these days, it's just a lack of professionalism. Or a complete disregard for customer requirements. Or all three.

On the other hand, perhaps someone's nicking the stuff from the back of the trucks when they're pulled over on the autoroute stops. I mean, it's easy enough, and it's not as though anyone's actually going to bother checking up on exactly how many seconds there are in the day (84600, if you were wondering) when it gets delivered. Missing one or two, who's going to notice?

Given the weather, I for one could not care less. Even if I am getting short-changed by two seconds a day. It's been bright, blue, sunny and above all warm for the past week, and I would very much like that to continue.

So I'm not going to say anything that could change that. I will not complain that the stream is dry (no rain, don't you know?), nor shall I mention (gods forfend) that it can be a bit foggy in the mornings (although not here); I shall cultivate stoicism, live with these minor problems, and enjoy spectacular sunsets and afdternoon temperatures around 16°. So what's it like for you?

As I look over the photos I post here, it comes to mind that perhaps I appear to spend a lot of time in bars. Or one bar in particular, anyway. This is probably true, and I'll make no excuses for it.

In fact, I appear to haunt the place. Whatever, I was a bit upset on Saturday when Bryan (you can see him furtively rushing towards the entrance of Cardinals, if you look carefully) and I met up for the after-market drink, where we congratulate one another on our purchases ("my parsnips are bigger than yours") and commiserate on hangovers (I don't have them, 'cos I don't drink. He does, and does. If you see my point.) and found no nibbles set out for our use.

I admit it was only 10:30, the hot blonde waitress hadn't even turned up (another hangover?) and we were the only two in the joint, apart from the bartenders who were desultorily discussing their sex lives and hangovers, but still: there are standards to be maintained, and if a man can't walk into his bar on a Saturday morning and enjoy a bowl of pretzels with a glass of white you really have to ask yourself where the world is going.

Congratulations to you for "The Amazing Johnsons". The first episode really was that; amazingly fun. Have to love the idea of a self-exiled band of Norse gods trying to live quietly in Auckland. Definitely one to keep watching. And had you seen that the second season of "Justified" has started? Go watch that too, I doubt you'll regret it. While you're at it, go pick up "Being Human" as well; not the US remake though, for pity's sake.

It has come to the wandering remnants of what I'm pleased to call my mind, for want of a better word, that here we are in late winter - or early spring, if you're optimistic - and we've had neither cassoulet nor choucroute. Did manage a tartiflette, mind you.

But it's rather sad, 'cos I love a choucroute (have to organise a soirée some time soon, as an excuse) and quite frankly you should not put me in the same room as a good cassoulet unless I've had my tranquilisers, for otherwise I'm quite capable of sleeping with it.  Energetically. And quite possibly on the table, which would be rather impolite.

Whatever, for a decent cassoulet you need to start out with around 500gm of dried white beans (for some reason they're called "lingots" in Frog), which you need to soak overnight. It's not as though it'll stop you farting, but the beans will at least be edible. More or less.

After their evening's soaking you need to drain and rinse the little sods, and stick them in a large saucepan with 1.5l of beef stock, and let it simmer for an hour. (I have a confession to make. This recipe involves no alcohol, which is kind of unsupportable - for me at least - so I use half and half stock and white wine. I feel better for it. But don't feel obliged to follow my example.)

While that's happening it would be a good idea to get the meat ready. Dragging out  from the freezer some of those wild duck that your farmer friends will insist on shooting and giving to you, and removing their legs, which are the only edible bits on the beast anyway, would be really good. A couple of lamb shanks would also come in handy, as would a good 200gm chunk of pork belly or bacon. And don't forget a garlic sausage, sliced thickly, or failing that a couple of decent pork sausages.

All these shall ye brown in a frying pan, along with a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, some thyme and rosemary, and heap it all with the beans and stock and stuff ye shalt in an enormous casserole. (Hence the name "cassoulet", incidentally. It's a dish which is cooked in a "cassole". Not, for once, joking.)

Then you need to add the contents of a 400gm tin of peeled cherry tomatoes and maybe a bit of tomato purée, a bit more wine if it looks too thick for your taste, cover the dish, and into the oven with it. For about three hours. At which point you could sprinkle fresh breadcrumbs over the top and put it back, uncovered, to let it cook for the last half-hour, or not - your choice.
This is not particularly refined food - basically baked beans without toast - but it is rather bloody good. Especially in winter, when you really want carbs'n'fat.

In other news, Jerry now knows his stage: he'll be spending his hiolidays at the Chateau de Rochegude (please try not to laugh, that really is its name) down in the arse-end of the Drôme. If you look at the picture galleries ( you could be forgiven for feeling that he's not quite in that league yet.

Do you have any idea just how difficult it can be, trying to keep your tie out of clafouti batter? Thought not. I only ask because I put one on this morning especially to frighten the old hags at the market (works a treat, by the way, especially when combined with my '60s sunglasses), still got the thing dangling around my neck and I can tell you it's a right bitch when you're trying to incorporate the meringue into the batter.

Unless of course you like ties with food on the sharp end (I can see as how that could come in handy during interminable meetings). And don't get me onto the subject of cufflinks.

But this may not be a problem you have: most relatively sane people of my acquaintance actually remove their ties (that's those of them that wear the things) before heading into the kitchen. I tend to remove jewellery - watch, cufflinks, tiepins, stuff like that - rather than clothing. Not sure why. Just shy, I suppose.

And as an aside, what do you think of "Commando Food" as an idea? Having a gite somewhere in the South could be fun, and Margo could doubtless organise quilting stays and workshops with enough people that I wouldn't spend all my time with the rosé in the kitchen, but I also quite like the idea of being a free-lance personal chef.

Get a phone call, organise the menu (client takes care of the wine, obviously), insult them a bit à la Basil Fawlty and then, just as the in-laws arrive so do I, abseiling through the kitchen windows in camouflage gear (cue a few explosions amongst the garden gnomes) to deliver a filet de boeuf Rossini with a side order of ragout d'asperges. (Could I abseil down from a helicopter? That would be so cool. But I do have vertigo. Maybe not a good idea. Don't want vomit on the veal.)

Is that doable, or should I go have another cold shower?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Spring, Sprung, maybe Sproing; whatever ...

Wednesday night up at the office, and it's frikkin frigid outside: trying to get some hardware to do what I want and it doesn't want to.

Hence Margo has been left to fend for herself in the food department (happily, there are enough leftovers for an army - or a brigade, anyway, so I don't feel too guilty) and I am headed off into town to see if I can't find something to eat.

Something which is neither a burger nor a kebab, and which won't take too long: good thing it's not a Monday night, or my options would be severely limited.

As it stands, they're limited to "L'arbre à Bières", which is, as it turns out, rather good. Noisy and cosy, with a rather good line in flammenkuche, at least if I'm any judge.

Not that I can claim to have eaten that many, nor to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of such things, but at least those I have in fact eaten were authentically Strasbourgeois, by birth anyway.

Should you be wondering, a flammenkuche (lit. "flamed cake") is the Alsatian answer to pizza. The yeasty dough is paper-thin, and in the basic version gets spread with cream, onions and bacon chunks before being stuck in a really hot wood stove for 15 minutes. When well done, it's definitely worth it. I had a slightly more elaborate version, involving raw cured ham, goat's cheese and fig jam: excellent. Especially when washed down with a glass or two of Gewurtz.

Which is all very well, but when I did get home around midnight it was to find that the central heating had cut out and didn't want to start again. This is not a nice thing to have happen at this time of year, let me assure you.

Especially as, in common with most such installations over here in ole Yurrup, yore central heating not only does the heating but also the hot water, so if it goes on the blink you can kiss goodbye to the nice hot shower you were so looking forward to in the morning. And as the ice-cubes come tinkling out of the shower-head to clang invigoratingly against your skin (I have no idea why this is called une douche écossaise, but it is), you may be forgiven for wondering what the hell you're doing in a place where the temperatures ever get below 23°.

It's a question which weighs upon my mind, anyway - along with "how can I get out of bed when it's only 9° in the bedroom?": a question to which I have not, as yet, found an entirely satisfactory answer. If only because "I can't" doesn't seem to be acceptable in all quarters.

Whatever, after no shower and a few frantic phone calls, the nice M. Damiani came and fixed the burner, despite a few dire warnings about the life-expectancy of the pump. Don't care. We is happy!  and warmer. For that sort of weather in the bedroom in the morning is CHILLY and even the cat thinks this. (As far as we can make out, anyway. She certainly seems to lick chins with more desperation, probably hoping to be invited under the blankets. That is not going to happen.)

Well, the earth moved for us last night - not like that, you band of filthy perverts: one last little wobble (or wibble) on its axis (is that sidereal precession, I wonder, are these words just coming to me from some of the darker recesses of the grey jelly I'm pleased to call a brain these days) and it suddenly feels like spring. No more bloody winter. I for one am heartily content, especially as it means I can dream again of drinks out on the terrace as the sun sets at a reasonable hour ...

Of course it also means that the snowdrops are coming up in the garden, the birds are cheeping in their nests as the cat waits below, and sometime in the next few months I'll have to take the lawnmower out of hibernation: I do not care. Not just now, anyway. Although I know I will, soon enough.

For the first time in years, Jeremy having been invited round to Sophie's for the evening (she's been booted out of the house so that Lucas can have his little soirée raclette free of adult interference) Margo and I went out. Nothing posh, let me assure you: just off to Cardinal's, for their inaugural Fish'n'chips evening.

Rather to my surprise it was actually very palatable: the chips were excellent, as was the fish. Beautifully battered, not greasy at all. On the other hand, they had no malt vinegar, so we had to settle for sauce tartare: memo to self, should we go again take a hip-flask full of vinegar.

The music wasn't too bad either, even if we did have to explain who Peter Frampton was.

I'd planned something quick and easy for lunch - involving wine, as usual - and it turned out to be poulet sauce dijonnaise. Of which you may not have heard, so I shall now tell you all about it.

It starts with bits of chicken - I always use chicken thighs because they're convenient, tasty and cheap, but if you feel like cutting up a whole chicken go to it, I'll stand back and watch in admiration - which get pan-fried for 5 minutes a side or so until nicely golden. Resist the urge to turn them every 30 seconds, it really doesn't help. Quite the opposite, in fact. When this has been done you can either stick them in the oven to roast or cover the pan, turn the heat down low, and let them finish on the burner.

Sophie doesn't have a decent cast-iron skillet, and I wasn't about to put her proper stainless-steel skillet in the oven to see if it worked, and in any case she has a typical French oven ie tiny which was already full with potatoes crisping up and some mushrooms roasting in olive oil and garlic, so I went for the stove-top option. Which also has the advantage of leaving all the crispy bits in the pan in which you'll make the sauce, which has to be good.

After 25 to 30 minutes the chook should be done, so haul it out, stick it on a plate, cover it with tinfoil and try to find room in the oven for it anyway - just so it stays warm. Then fling a couple of chopped shallots in the pan and let them soften before adding a glass or so of white (I assume there's some left) and the same amount of chicken stock: let that reduce by half.

When that has happened, add some cream and let it simmer for a bit more until it thickens. I can't give you accurate measurements here as I was using a knife to dig the cream out of its pot, being as what it was frozen solid. Which is because Sophie's fridge died, so whilst awaiting the arrival of a new fridge everything got stuck into the old one - which is in fact the first one we ever bought in France, about 23 years ago - which is manic-depressive and knows only "tepid" and "freezing". But I digress.

Add 2 tbsp of decent Dijon mustard and as many handfuls of chopped chives as you want - and I personally think a bit of cayenne would go nicely - and stir it all in before plonking the chicken back in it (or, alternatively, pouring it over the beast) and serving.

It was almost warm enough for us to have eaten outside, but the sporadic arrival of a playful breeze rather put paid to that idea, and so we dutifully dined around the table. Which was probably just as well, for otherwise we might have missed all the excitement concomitant on the arrival of her new fridge.

A burly man rang the doorbell, said "'ere, is the the Clavel place?" (or something very like that, loosely translated) and then with the help of his PFY assistant, proceeded to haul away the departed carcass and install its replacement. Which, incidentally, came loaded with about 750m of sticky tape holding various drawers, shelves and whatnots in place, which meant a half-hour's fun ripping the stuff off and trying not to wrap ourselves up in it. And as the presumed husband, I got assigned the manly-job of screwing various bits in place. ("'Ere," said the burly man, "monsieur will do that." Nice to know he considered it within my competence.)

Whatever, the big white gleaming beast is now Sophie's best friend, and I can see it standing there in the corner, unplugged and with all and sundry forbidden to touch it on pain of pain, at least until the gloss wears off. At which point the boys might be allowed to stick a yoghurt or two inside.