Sunday, October 28, 2012

Under The Weather ...

So there I was outside the office the other day, enjoying a quiet cigar before getting back on the phone with bloody Karim, when who should turn up but my favourite delivery man, the weedy redhead from UPS with a penchant for cigars. Turns out that he's also an amateur chef and grand aficionado of the barbecue.

Unusually for a Savoyard he also appreciates vegetables, and professes to be a (the) founding member of the Savoyard Aubergine Appreciation Society, lamenting bitterly that his compatriots don't eat enough greens and moaning that quite frankly, he found melted cheese ecoeurant and could no longer stomach a raclette these days.

And having better things to do, we spent a happy twenty minutes or so smoking and drinking our coffee and swapping recipes. And he had some really good ones, mostly for the barbecue and cooked en papillotte ie well wrapped in tin-foil:
  • a layer of sauce bolognaise, slice of aubergine, slice of mozzarella, more bolognaise, another slice of aubergine, top the lot with parmesan, seal it all up well and cook carefully on all sides for maybe ten minutes
  • slice a good chorizo thinly lengthwise and wrap fresh green asparagus in the slices, then seal and cook
  • parmesan chips, to go with decent home-made guacamole
He also admitted to adoring fresh sweetcorn to the point where he nicks a couple of ears in the evening from a farm down the road so he can stick it straight on to cook, and you can't get it much fresher than that. Man after my own heart, definitely a good sort.

Now we have an Australian quilter friend, Dijanne Cevaal, staying with us for a couple of days, so we thought that on Saturday, seeing as the weather was so great, I'd take her off to tour the market with me, she could get some photos of cute babies and kittens or whatever was for sale, and then we'd go off to a bar and have some rosé under the sun before heading back home.

Sadly, waking on Saturday morning revealed it to be raining and dismal, but at least that meant not too many people around at the market: unfortunately, that itself meant that the actual shopping part itself went really quickly, which in turn meant that at about 9:30 I was facing the prospect of schlepping fifteen kilos of fruit and veges around under a cold drizzle for two hours or more. So we did what any normal people would do under the circumstances, namely wander between every bar I know in Chambéry*.

Chez Liddy was warm and cozy as usual but you can only stretch a coffee and a small glass of Chignin so far before they start to give you meaningful looks, and as it was about 10 I reckoned it would be worthwhile going off to the Beer Tree to see if I couldn't confide the shopping to their tender mercies for a while, so we set off in a rather circuitous way through the traboules and alleys of vieux Chambéry, heading more or less in their general direction.

They open at 11:30 and I really had hoped that they'd have turned up a good deal earlier to get the place ready for business - not that in such weather there was likely to be much of that I guess - but I turned out to be mistaken. So, turn back, negotiate another couple of ruelles and arrive at le Modesto, where I thought it'd be a good idea to introduce Dijanne to the delights of a diot au vin blanc sandwich. Another disappointment, they'd only just put the things on to simmer so they'd not be ready until around mid-day.

Still, as we sipped at our wine and I perused the august pages of le Dauphiné Libéré (think, "Otatuhu Enquirer", people, only with more focus on interesting and/or amusing vegetables, livestock prices, and where the local raffles are being held this weekend) I was greatly cheered to find that international slime-ball Silvio Berlusconi had been sentenced to 4 years prison, even if that was reduced - thanks to a no-doubt purpose-built amnesty law for fiscal fraud - to one year. And doubtless he'll appeal, but still that little two column-inch article on the back page did a lot for the sum total of human happiness.

We were nursing our glasses and then they brought around plates with little bowls of puréed sun-dried tomatoes and, I'd guess, roasted aubergine with slices of fresh baguette - possibly as an apology for the current unavailability of pig products - and so we demolished that lot before heading back, still under the rain, to the Beer Tree.

Where there finally were signs of life, so I gratefully parked the shopping basket, massaged a bit of life back into my arm, and we set out to do the touristy bits - around place St Léger, up and around the chateau, along the streets and back through the market again (profiting from the occasion to get some chèvre and a tub of batusson: godnose what I'm going to do with that but I'll think of something, maybe make a batch of feuilleté, spread it with the stuff and roll up into a log to make cheese rolls), then along rue du Sénat, avenue de Boigne, rue Métropole and back home to my favourite bar.

No-one had nicked the shopping, so we sat down in the warmth and ordered more wine to while away the time until Margo turned up. Which she eventually did, followed closely by Bryan, who'd spent the morning trying to instill the rudiments of English into a couple of students and who was thus not averse to a glass or so himself, and so the afternoon started off pretty much as usual for us.

And then, in the evening, it slowly but unmistakeably started to snow. First the rain started sticking to the windows - never a good sign - and then you could see the flakes swirling around in the light. Yes, I know it'd been predicted, but quite frankly I'm more than happy for the forecasts to be wrong on occasions like this.

So after the scallops in white wine and the little gateaux of pumpkin and bacon and cheese (just because I happened to have some cold roast pumpkin lying around) and the petits pois à la française and the apricot clafouti we sat around a bit, Margo muffled up to the tip of her dripping nose for the sake of her cold, and decided that perhaps, after all, it was time to turn the central heating on. Mind you, we've had a good run: never before have we made it through to the end of October without going and doing penance before the Beast That Lurks, so that it agrees to keep us warm.

Given that virtually overnight the temperature must have dropped by 12° or so at least, we really did appreciate that this morning. Of course I shall have to go around and purge the radiators and maybe stick a little more water back into the system, but it is just so nice to look out from the warmth at the snow a couple of hundred metres above us. Be even nicer, of course, were there no snow, but I suppose you can't have everything.

It is also quite definitely time to do more than just think about comfort food. Luckily I just happen to have a big bit of boned, rolled pork shoulder in the fridge which is positively crying out to be slowly roasted in a terrine: there are also some grenaille (which are not, as you might think, buckshot: they're actually baby potatoes about the size of the top joint of your thumb, and you could do a lot worse than steam them and then finish them off in duck fat with a bit of salt and maybe some herbes de Provence), some aubergines and tomatoes, the afore-mentioned batusson, and all the makings of a tarte tatin.

Although I'm not so sure about the apple tart if we're already having pastry with the apéro, and on top of that I'm pretty sure there's some ricotta or some mascarpone somewhere around, and it strikes me that mixed up with egg and sugar and lemon oil and then spread over a base of pain d'épices covered with raisins and slices of apple and then the whole sprinkled, why not, with decent cocoa before baking, that could be quite good. Maybe I'll do that anyway, just to see.

And to fill in the afternoon, I guess I'd better go and fix the spare bed, which kind of embarrassed us by falling apart under Dijanne on the first night. I must admit that I did knock it up out of old planks and odd bits of wood back in 1994 when Jean & Leigh first came over to visit, for Jeremy's birth - and it promptly fell apart under them too, decanting them gently on to the floor in the middle of the night. But that was because, back in the day, I didn't know that there was a right and a wrong way to fix the supports for the slat base. Nowadays, I do.

I guess that after eighteen years of being repeatedly taken to bits and put back together again it's just got bored with life. But maybe it's also a warning to me that when we come to kit out our chambres d'hote, I should resist the temptation to just Do It Myself ("don't worry sweetie, it's easy, won't take more than thirty seconds to knock up a shelving system capable of holding three elephants") and get the stuff at Ikea like everyone else.

Or perhaps, given that for some reason Ikea has the reputation (which I've personally never really found to be justified, but all these Yurrupeans can't be wrong) for shipping everything in their flat-packs except for two small but vital screws which you can't, on the Sunday when you're putting the damn thing together, find for love nor money and of course you can't just whip down to the store and buy them, we should go around the brocanteurs in the region and get furniture that has proven its solidity by staying in one piece for that past eighty years or so, despite the best efforts of people to take it to pieces.

We sort of inherited some pieces of that ilk when we bought this place, and I'm willing to bet that the only reason they were left here was because no-one could think of an easy way to get them out. Either that, or they were so overwhelmingly ugly that no-one, not even a French peasant, really wanted them, even as an unexpected present for his mother-in-law.

Actually, the place we popped into at Carcassonne had some quite decent stuff and very reasonably priced, so just maybe that would not in fact be such a bad idea. Especially as having your gîte prominently listed as a health hazard due to sprained joints, squashed thumbs and diverse other accidents suffered by the clientèle as a result of furniture malfunctions is not, as a general rule, considered conducive to repeat business.

And although the buggers (the brocanteurs, that is) do tend to have a rather inflated idea as to the value of an admittedly cute but totally impractical C19 china soup tureen, ditto and in spades for a gigantic (and massive) serving dish capable of holding an entire saddle of venison and all the trimmings (and just who eats like that these days anyway?), you can also often pick up an old-fashioned but perfectly serviceable china dinner service, and if you're lucky some decent cutlery which was not made from aluminium (which appears to have been rather à la mode at one time) and knives with good carbon-steel blades. Which do have a tendency to discolour, and as they're often fitted out with either bone or wood handles the dishwasher is definitely not an option, but I do like a knife that keeps a decent edge.

There are also the 60's stereo systems and the vast collections of circa 1970 French LPs, which totally do not interest me, but there are also amusing oddities. Although just what I would do with a three metre-high wrought-iron chandelier painted green and gold I really cannot think, but I still have this urge to possess it.

Anyway, this is not getting that bed fixed. Think of us, won't you, shivering under the snow. And mind how you go.

*Not entirely true. The more observant amongst you will note as you read on that we skipped O'Cardinal's, le Refuge and Pierre the execrable, le Chapon Fin in front of the palais de Justice, and a number of others. Still, three's not bad considering the weather. And the limited time at our disposition.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Points South ...

So Sophie decided to celebrate her 50th in style the other night, with a band and everything. Renaud's one of nature's drummers, her second son Rémi plays a pretty mean guitar, and their young lead singer did a rather good job of some Amy Winehouse songs ... anyway, we turned up in our glad rags bearing, as requested, a little plat salé, and though I say so myself it wasn't half bad. Certainly disappeared rapidly.

(So did we, actually. A couple of hours eating and drinking is enough for me these days before I have to go and have a hot cocoa before lying down, and anyway there's only so much karaoke I can handle in one evening before I go terminal, and have to be physically restrained and/or sedated.)

It came to me, having the necessaries to hand, that it would be an interesting idea to line some silicone muffin trays with squares of feuilleté batârd, stick some slices of a nice crisp apple on the bottoms and top that with chopped mint and rounds of bûche de chèvre before folding the corners of the pastry over the top and brushing them with egg wash and then sticking them in the oven for a bit. It would seem I was right, although being an inveterate fiddler I would perhaps stick half a date on top as well next time, should there be the occasion.

Who are you looking at?
I was also blessed, as some people at least seem to love me, with a birthday present. For some time I have been craving a decent solid stainless-steel frying pan without any of that non-stick crap: these are not easy to find, even at places like Tec'Hotel which cater (if you'll excuse me) to restaurants, grocers (supplying superfluous apostrophes) and suchlike. But to my surprise the local supermarket had, for some reason, a special on just such things: my lusts are satisfied (for the moment) and I am now the proud owner of a 28cm stainless-steel sauteuse, which I plan on baptising tonight.

Probably with some escalopes de dinde, which I shall coat with a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, fry in unreasonable quantities of olive oil and butter, and then place in a gratin dish with a simple tomato sauce under and around before finishing it off in the oven with copious amounts of grated cheese, garlic and chopped parsley on top, waiting with impatience for it to go all bubbly and crispy.

So it's a dull grey Sunday, and what better way to spend one of those than curled up in front of the computer checking out house prices in the Aude? That, in case you were wondering, is the region between Narbonne and Toulouse, and as Margo has to head off to Toulouse next weekend we shall profit from the occasion to go take a look.

Now one of Jean Hailloud's many sons is Alexandre, who happens to be a real-estate agent, and he came around Friday night to do a quick appraisal: a couple of hours inspection and measurements before doing a quick back-of-the-envelope estimate to say that he reckoned the place was worth about 230 000€ as is, and no point to doing anything up because anyone who's interested will have their own ideas as to how they would like it done.

Which gives us a budget of something like 150 000€ to buy something, and it appears that there is no shortage of big houses to buy in that price range down in that region, many of them with no apparent defects ie lying directly on an earthquake fault line, being built on top of an abandoned mine that's slowly caving in, or being surrounded by fragrant sewage plants. So definitely worthwhile taking a shufti.

If it interests anyone, the area is apparently a centre for white-water rafting and other extreme bathing sports, the Cathar citadels are within easy reach (as are, indeed, Carcasonne, Castelnaudary, Toulouse itself ...) and the beaches of Narbonne are not too far. Nor, to my pleasure, are places like St. Chinian, Minervois, Gaillac ... not particularly famous, but the wine can be excellent. Often is, in fact. Come a long way over the years, as I've remarked before. (Free tip: if ever you find yourself in the vicinity of Narbonne, take the time to go out to St. Chinian - it's not too far - and bully the GPS into taking you to le Domaine la Croix Ste-Eulalie. When you've found it, taste and then buy some of their wine. You won't regret it, promise.)

And either our poor little lemon tree has turned schizoid on us, or something's wrong with the climate, for I cannot believe we've suddenly developed green fingers: not only are there two ripe and to all appearances perfectly good lemons on it, but it's sprouting leaves and buds as though it were spring. It'll all end in tears, unless we remember to bring it inside soon, before the first frosts hit.

By the way, and just as a matter of interest, about how many times a month do those of you out there not cook? As in, go out to a restaurant, or maybe pull a barquette of Paul Bocuse™ pigs gonads in blood sauce out of the freezer and pop it in the microwave? Also, reheating a tin of ravioli in tomato sauce does not count as cooking. I'm not suggesting that you should kill and dress your own meat, that's what butchers are for ... and buying fresh ravioli from that Italian place at the market and dressing it up with blue cheese and broccoli pesto is most definitely cuisine ...

Just asking, out of curiosity. There will not be a test later on the subject, and I've never been judgmental. So do feel free to be honest. I'd really like to know. My own completely unscientific little survey, and purely for my own interest.

I'd just like to point out that it's fairly well-known that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail - what is rather less well-known is that to a cook with a new stainless steel sauteuse, virtually everything looks as though it can be cooked in it. And, as far as this cook is concerned, most everything can. The turkey was fine, the ham steaks with their parboiled baby potatoes sizzled and browned nicely in the duck fat, and the bap-burger (yay, with beetroot!) was definitely a treat for Sunday lunch. I'm just not sure that I can safely put it in the oven (gotta admit that the trusty Copco cast-iron pan, which made a trip over to NZ to be bought by me before coming back to Europe with us all those years ago, is unbeatable for that) or there would be even more things I would do with it.

You just wait until I get my sweaty hands on some chicken thighs.

On considered reflection, I think that as they reach end of life the Tefal pans around here are just going to get retired and replaced with more virtually indestructible stainless steel: it's true that quality is always cheaper, in the long run. Also, burnt crusty bits (a food group in themselves, as far as Margo is concerned, and an essential base for a decent sauce) are so much easier to do. And although I've been eating Teflon for much of my life, with no apparent ill-effects (warning: opinions may differ on this), I guess I really ought to cut back on the stuff. Along with the cholesterol, and the wine.

Maybe the reason some people don't cook is because they have crap pans. Doesn't matter as much if you cook, like most professionals, with gas, but if you've ever tried to balance a pan with a curved base on a flat surface (like the cast-iron top of a poele, or a halogen element, or most other cook-tops) you will have definitely have experienced ennui and, eventually, despair, as you wait for the damn thing to heat evenly. Which, of course, it cannot and will not do, given that most of the surface is not actually in direct contact with the heat source.

And most cheap pans will, sooner or later, have a curved base: usually, sad to say, convex, so they bobble around with about 1cm² in direct contact with the heat, for they are made of light-gauge aluminium which, even if it does start out flat to begin with, has a regrettable tendency to warp with heat. Aggravated if you will insist on putting water in them as soon as you've finished cooking.

Rather like knives, really. Most people around here (at least the ones that let me in their kitchens) have really bad ones. And they replace them, every year or so, with more bad ones. Honestly, if I really wanted to squash a tomato rather than cut it, I'd use a hammer. Or maybe, if I wanted to make a point, an electric drill. Yes, my hands are covered in small knife cuts, usually the result of an unwarranted flamboyant gesture that went wrong - but if you want to do serious damage, use a blunt knife. You really have to put some effort into it to get it to cut anything, and so when it slips - and it will - it will make a rather nasty wound. It'll get you sympathy.

Whatever, like I said, we headed down south on Friday. Margo picked me up from the office at 6, and with but a short detour back to the house to pick up a few neglected trifles (like some wine, for the route, and a coat, which never, as it happens, got used) we left: and made as far as Beziers, which is a surprisingly large city. Well, it surprises me, anyway.

Saturday it was off into the savage foothills of la Montagne Noire heading off to Carcassonne via the nationales, with a detour up into the Minervois where the soil is an truly rich, deep, almost crimson colour. Incredibly beautiful, with the rocky outcrops everywhere and the dark-green pines and the cedars, but maybe not really a place to live. But you should see it. Also, following le canal du Midi. Which is, apparently, on the UNESCO list of the patrimoine de l'humanité, for what that's worth. But beautiful, with the slow water under the platanes.

Now for some reason the camembert rôti seems finally to have hit France, some thirty years or more since deep-fried Brie was last popular in NooZild. Maybe, when we start this chambres + table d'hôte business, we should serve nothing but food that was regarding as daringly continental down in the antipodes four decades ago: we'd be sure to have a hit on our hands.

Anyway, that was on the menu where we lunched, at a little bistrot called l'Artichaut, somewhere around the open market at Carcassonne (sorry, I cannot be more specific), along with tourte aux cèpes et foie gras. Both were excellent, as was the rosé I ordered with mine, and their burgers looked pretty damned good as well. Sadly, I only had the big zoom on the camera, and I was so not going to trudge back to wherever the car was to pick up the macro, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

From Carcassonne we headed further south, down the valley of the Aude: through Limoux, down to Quillan, then across to Foix and Mirepoix (the culinarily aware amongst you will recognise that word) and then, rather unplanned, all the way up to Toulouse.

So we stopped at Limoux and couldn't help but notice "Kat's Irish Bar, good pub food, burgers, Sunday roast, est. 2012". So after strolling around - and the central square with its arcades and naked blue lady (never, ever, let a municipal employee loose with a tin of left-over paint) is rather out of the ordinary - we really had no choice but to stop off and have a drink. Kat turned out to be an authentic young Irish woman from Cork, and amongst her business partners is an Irish chef. She said that after some initial resistance the French around there are really getting used to fish'n'chips.

A word to the wise: there are certain difficulties contingent on finding a cheap hotel at Toulouse. I'm sure that if your GPS is not manic-depressive you'll get by, but as ours is apparently in need of 24/24 care things were not as easy. Usually these things are clustered around autoroute exits: apparently, at Toulouse, not so much. So we spent a happy hour driving back and forth on the periphérique (nagged all the time by the bloody GPS, who thought we should have been in bed by this time) until finally we spotted a hotel, where they took pity on us and gave directions to somewhere affordable.

Where we dumped our stuff and set out in search of somewhere to eat but sadly the local pizza joint was closed, so we were forced to eat at la Campanile.Where, as I came to pay, I could not help but notice the nametag "Lolita" clinging precariously to the ample breasts of our waitress. Some parents should not be allowed to name their children. (Also, did not get a photo. Sorry.)

On the way back we decided to have a look a bit more to the south-east, and so from Carcassonne we let the GPS guide us. I'm not entirely sure that was a good idea, as left to its own devices it seems to prefer tracks that even goats would sneer at. Rather than taking the perfectly good D133 it chose some little road that wasn't really marked on the map which lead us up into, over and along the montagne d'Alaric: very savage, very wild and very beautiful, but I think you could spend days there without seeing another human being. Bit like the Desert Road really, especially as vast tracts seem to be reserved for the military - godnose what even they get up to there.

It finally quietened down when it got us to Lagrasse, and accepted to take us, without too much trouble, to St Laurent de Cabresrine, which is also incredibly touristic and has l'église de l'Escargot, which may be distinguished from others of the same name by the columns supporting the porch. They were classified as an historic monument back in the 50's, and are apparently (and I quote) "decadent Corinthians". Always nice to know.

There is also a very nice house there, just destined for us ... sadly, I suspect it's rather out of our price range. Never mind, there are others.

And after that, as it was getting on and we still wanted to pay Jerry a visit, drop off his speakers, and get back home at a semi-reasonable hour, it was back onto the autoroute. Which brings me to the thought that it is amazing, in the cradle of gastronomy™, just how poorly one can eat.

On the autoroute, for example. It is true that one can eat at virtually any hour, but usually very badly. On the way down Margo had a panini and I opted for an exciting-looking wholegrain roll that advertised itself as a "Chicken Cesar Sandwich": I'm not sure which of us was the most deceived. I must admit that hers was cold in the middle, which kind of obviates the point, but I'd like to point out that mine required very healthy jaws and was, on top of that, stuffed with mayo.

I hate bloody mayo. The French, on the other hand, love the stuff: even eat it with chips, instead of tomato sauce as god intended. Another puzzlement.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

User-Hostile ...

How pirates spend their spare time.
The page views are not going up as fast I'd like around here, so I guess it must be time to mention threadworms prominently again. So - THREADWORMS! THREADWORMS! THREADWORMS! If that doesn't work, I don't know what will. Perhaps I could get Beckham to put in a guest appearance, taking her clothes off in a good cause. (Although one of the googles that wound up here was for "good morning hunk sexy" which is rather more flattering, maybe I should play on that angle. Am not going to try to attract the "disturbed that shit" market segment, do not want to go there.)

When I left you last it was with an elegant brunch on an idyllic Saturday: sad to say, Sunday was a bit of a let-down, being grey, cool and drizzly. A good thing, then, that I'd got off my chuff late Saturday afternoon and took the camera for a bit of a wander around some of the back roads and farm tracks that crisscross the countryside all around Montmelian. Next time there's a fine week-end I might try following some of the tracks that parallel the railway between there and Saint-Pierre: from what I see on the train every day there look to be some rather nice spots just crying out for someone to have a picnic there. Only drawback, I suppose, would be hypothetical gawkers on the occasional passing train.

Still, the weather didn't stop me from making a salade bressane to go alongside my quiche: a decent vinaigrette thickened with sour cream, rougette, corn kernels and toss at the last minute with chunks of chicken liver that you've seared quickly all over in butter and then deglazed with a dash of balsamic vinegar. Add chives if you like, and maybe next time I'll stick some croutons in there too.

But now that the leaves have almost overnight started to change colour and the fire's been pressed back into service, it's time to start thinking about winter food, sort of thing I can cook slowly one evening and then reheat the next day for dinner. Stewed lamb shanks would be on my list, along with oxtails (maybe Italian-style, with lemony gremolada), and perhaps a glazed jambonneau, with the meat tender and falling off the bone. With dumplings, if I thought I could get away with those.

And now that Jeremy's not around to complain cassoulet and choucroute become viable options, although they do require us to organise some guests: fine meals though they are they do not, in my experience, freeze well (and the last time I did that anyway I wound up, by a combination of error compounded with stubbornness, with cassoulet pizza - not a great success) and eating them three times in a row gets rather repetitive.

There's also my favourite pork meatballs simmered in white wine with herbs and small chopped potatoes, and carbonnade (now if I could find someone to slip me some game that would be excessively nice), and all sorts of things to do with chicken or pintade: I shall have to spend an evening sometime Real Soon Now curled up with some of my cookbooks, hunting down ideas.

Oh, and I made lasagna, which gets me onto another of my rants, which is that I can see no earthly reason for the existence of Emmenthal cheese: which, logically, as it does (sadly) exist, should lead me to a belief in some sort of Creator with bad taste in either humour or cheese. It doesn't, although I suppose those Intelligent Design twerps would be more than happy to use it as evidence.

Anyway, maybe I should qualify my admittedly denigratory  remarks, and content myself with saying that the French Emmenthal which one can buy in France is bland, rubbery, and completely lacking in any culinary or gustatory interest. But it is a pretty shade of pale yellow, and I suppose could be used, at a pinch, to bait traps for taste-deprived terminally-depressive mice. Or, grated, mixed in with mashed turnip and sculpted, to form an amusing centrepiece for a festive dinner table.

Apart from that, and the fact that it is totally inoffensive and hardly ever toxic, being produced on a vast scale by agri-businesses that know damn well that sales would plummet if people started getting sick from the stuff, I can see no point to it. Its only virtue is that it's sold by weight, which at least means that you're not paying for the gaping bubbles in the stuff - once, back in the day, a by-product of the fermentation but now, I suspect, obtained by injecting air into the unsavoury mix of what were once dairy products as it's forced at high pressure into the mould - which, along with that rubbery texture, make it such a bitch to grate.

Perhaps I should go take something to calm me down. But it's a bit of a bitch when you get home to find that your one and only pair of glasses (yes, I know, having only one pair is totally my fault) have spontaneously fallen apart in their case, and that consequently you're facing two days of squinting at a computer screen like a wall-eyed baboon.

And that's after going to catch the 8:27 to Chambéry to discover, only ten minutes after it's scheduled departure, that it's 20 minutes late anyway, and then pull into Montmélian and sit there for another 15 minutes before being told that there's a train for Chambéry at quai 4 which will actually be going there at some time in the not too distant future, like 30 seconds, so if your travel plans include Chambéry you should get your arse over there right now. Oh, and this reassuring announcement comes over a Tannoy that sounds like a cat with a sutured arsehole farting out the remains of an over-ripe mouse.

Whatever, I wandered in to the Beer Tree the other day for lunch (roulé de poulet et gratin de courge that day, perhaps better-known to you as a chicken breast rolled up around some fried sliced poivrons and ham before being sliced, pan-fried, and served with a creamy sauce and a pumpkin gratin grilled with cheese and a decent amount of nutmeg) to observe yet another new cook in the kitchen.

I'm too polite to comment, so I was stuffing my face when I heard the owner giving the orders through the hatch in broken English, for all the world as if the rôles of Manuel and Basil Fawlty had been reversed. But it piqued my interest: the new guy's an Ecuadorian. Maybe we'll see the birth of fusion Alsatian cuisine: the chili flammenkuche with sliced guinea-pig, perhaps.

While I'm in the mood for complaining, I might as well do it properly and moan and bitch like mad and for that there's one thing that never fails to get me going ie bloody Samsung software. Now this may come as a surprise but I actually text quite a lot and I never actually delete anything on the grounds that if I do I will regret it one day - the last time I did get rid of stuff was when I changed phones and that was only thanks to some tit at Samsung Orbiting HQ somewhere over Seoul having decided that no-one could conceivably wish to cart their life stories with them from phone to phone, and consequently making this impossible.

But I digress. I started to notice that little by little, for certain threads, the phone would start to take what seemed like a lifetime to dismiss the messaging app and return to the home screen, which is what I like to do because if I don't then the next time a message comes in and I swipe to open it the damn thing sniffily tells me that I can't do that because the messaging app is already open and I need to close it first. I mean that, in itself, is terminally dumb, because it then goes on to display the message anyway in the already-open app, so why whine to me about its problems? Anyone at Samsung hear me? I just do not want to know.

So I thought that maybe, just maybe, given that these threads might well have had a couple of thousand messages in them and that possibly that was causing problems for the piss-poor software as it tried to index them or something (and don't ask why, if indeed that is the reason, it didn't do that as a background task while I'm looking at the things: I wouldn't care to criticise poor software design which completely fails to take advantage of multi-threading), I would go and delete some of the older ones.

That was, as it turns out, unwise. I can delete an entire thread if I want, but I don't. So I open the thread, and it thoughtfully displays the last couple of messages. So far, so normal. So I thought I'd go back to the earliest messages ... do you know, there is no usable vertical scroll bar? (Which is definitely a retrograde step, because three or four software iterations ago there used to be one.) There's something like a progress gauge, so that you know where you are in this enormous thread, but how do you change where you are? Goodness me, by swiping your thumb up or down on the screen, and watching as ten messages or so fly by, and then repeating the experience ... this is, in my opinion, kind of brain-dead.

Doing it this way takes an unconscionable time to get to the head of a long list, but fortunately I was on a train at the time and had nothing better to do: I suppose I was lucky that no new message arrived because if one did it would surely have sent me back to the end of the list. So I finally got to the top of the list, and noticed that there, and there only, is an option to select all messages. Why should that be there? Why do I have to spend five minutes literally twiddling my thumb just to get to a useful option?

But it gets better. There is always a little icon present that allows one to select messages, which is what I want to do: press on that and a checkbox appears next to each message, and there's an option at the bottom of the screen to delete selected messages. Sadly, this also sends you back to the latest entries of the list, from whence you contemplate glumly the prospect of twiddling your way all the way back up. I'm a masochist, I did that, and after a lifetime started selecting messages.

I'd got about 200 selected when, as bad luck would have it, a new one came in: and that's when I found out that my most dismal forebodings were completely justified as I found myself abruptly booted out of selection mode and back to the bottom of the list, with "Hi! What do you put in your ratatouille?" displayed and the phone made a smug "twoot".

It was at this point that I decided that maybe, when the problem starts to annoy me sufficiently, I should just go change my phone. So that's settled then.

Changing the subject entirely, I went off to the medical centre to get a blood test done - do you know how many people seem to have the same brilliant idea at about 9am on Saturday? - and stood in line to get the little ticket that would allow me to sit in line until my turn came.

The guy ahead of me had a big carry-all bag and when he got to the head of the line he opened it and proudly pulled out a two litre plastic bottle full of piss, going by the colour. I could only assume that he just didn't know when or how to stop because let's face it, what conceivable medical test could require that much urine?

So I went and sat down to await my turn, and I had to revise my opinion because now little old ladies and strapping youths were wandering in, and many pulled out the same-sized jars and deposited them on the counter - must have taken weeks of effort for some of those wee ladies to get enough.

I've come up with a number of possibilities here: could be that a surprising percentage of the population is in fact incontinent. Or maybe, given the current economic situation, some people have already abandoned the euro and turned to an alternative currency. (I would not want to see the 'solid foundations' of this. Nor do I think could it be classed as a store of value.) More likely, I suspect, is that the centre has a secondary business as a urea plant.

Somewhat more icky, I couldn't help but notice that there's a dry-cleaner's shop just next door ...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hidden Van der Graaf Generators ..

So after watching the usual tonsil-tickling couples hanging around the gare the other night I'd had my full of fun, and anyway my train had just pulled up, and it was as I was waiting to get on that I was reminded of Ambrose Bierce's definition of a garter, as "intended to keep a woman from coming out of her stockings and devastating the country".

I say this with no malice, it's just that it was brought forcefully to mind as off the train hopped a tight-fitting young blonde slightly too big for her clothes, with breasts that did indeed look as though they were in some danger of bursting loose and doing considerable damage to the surroundings and any innocent bystanders.

Now despite what some people might think, it is not all la grande cuisine around the Bimler household. Case in point: got home from the market and then fiddling around with Stacey's PC under a grey drizzling sky, and found I had some basse côte sitting in the fridge, some pears, some pastry and some mascarpone. So it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, once having got the poele underway (for it is starting to get chilly around these parts), to get the wok out.

First thing to be organised was the pear tart: line a pie dish (I do like the ones with a removeable base, makes things so much easier afterwards), peel and slice the pears and arrange them on the pastry, then beat up the mascarpone with a couple of eggs, some sugar, powdered almonds if you happen to have them, and a few drops of pure lemon oil. Pour that lot over the pears, and into the oven with it.

As to the basse côte, I rather like it with sauce aurore, which is nothing more than a béarnaise with a bit of tomato concentrate in it, and as I happen to be the one doing the cooking that's what it gets served with.

So, into the pan on the poele to get seared on both sides, along with a coupe of halved tomatoes, well-peppered and with a few slivers of parmesan on top, before taking it out, cutting into slices against the grain, and serving. Along with the frites, which is where the wok comes in. (I knew you were wondering about the wok. I like it because I can shallow-fry, which uses a damn sight less oil, and with the triple burner on the stove I can get up to temperatures that our certifiably geriatric deep-fryer can only dream of, plus it's a hell of a lot easier to empty the oil out into a clean bottle when all is done.)

So, a typical Saturday night dinner chez les Bimler: steak and chips. I guess I really should have fried myself an egg as well, but that might have been a bit over the top.

Mind you it wasn't easy getting in to the kitchen and thinking of cooking, due to a plague of lighthouse-keepers maggots. Stumbled blearily in (I know, I am not really a morning person, don't think anyone around here is really) one morning, looking for coffee: luckily I was just awake enough to see one wiggling around the edge of my mug before I filled it. OK, gross, but so what ...

The morning after there was one in Margo's cup, and one on the benchtop: right, definitely time to get serious here. So we spent a happy time pulling units away from the walls, marvelling at the years of accumulated grime lurking behind them and destroying with a stroke of a Janola-soaked floor-cloth ancient bacterial civilisations, then finally took the time to actually have our respective coffees. Happy, as it were, in the knowledge of a job well done.

Sadly, the next day, one of the little buggers was waving at us from inside the microwave, which is not only unhygienic but also downright insulting (also terminal, for it), at which point Margo got all mediaeval ... which resulted in quite a lot of rather périmé foodstuffs being chucked out, including a large, opened but untouched packet of Chocolate-Coated Sugar Bombs or whatever that had once belonged to Jeremy but had been adopted by a large family of bugs.

So cleaning behind the cupboards turned out to have been superfluous, which is a shame as I hate wasted effort, but never mind, the place is clean now at least.

Completely unrelated: must get around to organising some sort of central address repository around here. Currently we have a little white book, rather ragged around the edges these days after some twenty years of service: as people shift the Tippex gets called into service and hopefully-accurate versions of new phone numbers and addresses replace the old.

Sadly there's no system for pruning the dead wood out, so we still have the address for Ikea in Rennes somewhere in there: still, at least that's unlikely to have moved so it might well still be accurate, even if not of much use. Also, some pages are actually running out of room (problem with having so many friends/acquaintances whose surnames start with, let's say, "K"), so some new or updated entries get written down on scraps of paper and taped in, usually somewhere near the front but often enough sort of randomly.

I just mention this because I had occasion the other night to phone Jean to wish her a happy birthday and proudly dialled the most recent looking entry under V for Vickridge, only to find myself apologising to a rather confused woman who seemed convinced that I was some chap called Guy having a joke at her expense. At least I got through to the right country.

Also, I has done kulcha. Having worthier things to do Friday night, I naturally accepted with alacrity when Stacey rang to ask if I wanted to go see a theatrical number at Montmelian, and duly turned up at 7pm kind of expecting the worst. I suppose you could say I was disappointed: the sketches which comprised the first half were actually quite clever, and the second half was a delight.

Had you asked me before whether I liked George Brassens I would doubtless have responded with a resounding non!, but that would have definitely been a case of chauvinistic ignorance. It is true that your French has to be pretty good and your knowledge of some of the more - um, obscene's not quite the word I'm looking for here, let's say robust - synonyms should be extensive, but if that's the case then you could very well heartily enjoy his songs. Sadly, I rather doubt that they would survive translation - certainly not at my hands.

So anyway, headed off to the market as usual, camera slung around my neck and basket in hand, only to discover, rather to my dismay, that the first time I wanted to use it the camera wouldn't turn on. Bugger, quoth I, only with rather more feeling than that, and as I happened to be just outside the FNAC I popped in there (looking, I admit, a bit out of place with all the fruit and vegetables doing their best to spill out on the escalator) to see if, by some chance, they happened to have a battery - just in case that was the problem. Although I'd only charged it a couple of weeks back, so I wasn't too hopeful ...

Of course the guy sucked his teeth rather mournfully and replied in the negative: but rather to my surprise he very helpfully suggested that I whip past 1001 Piles, which is a sort of specialty shop that sells nowt but batteries. "It's really your best bet, squire ..."

And oddly enough, they did indeed have a battery that fit, and I was very pleased to stick it in and see the flashy little animation that the E-500 does when it comes to life. Guess I can't really complain: the first battery was the original, and after five years or so I suppose it was a bit tired. But it was definitely a relief, I'd half-feared that it was the electronics that had died, and having just shelled out €400 for a new lens that would have seriously pissed me off.

To celebrate I headed off to the Beer Tree, and had my first-ever encounter with one of those Orwellian black Opels that get the raw material for Street View. And feeling recursive, I snapped a photo of it photographing me: I do hope that this does not result in some sort of temporal singularity, for that would be a shame. Also, quite possibly embarrassing.

Sadly neither Bryan nor Beckham were present: he had a rendezvous with a bottle of champagne (some confused story about apologizing for missing someone's wedding, I guess maybe they gave him the champagne as some sort of payoff for not turning up and frightening all the other guests) and she, as is about par for the course, was sleeping off a hangover.

Be that as it may, I had a tin of foie gras sitting around, and some muffins, so it seemed only fitting to make decadent eggs Benedict for a lovely sunny afternoon. Brunch is such a good meal.

You know these, I hope: toast muffins, fry bacon, make béarnaise or hollandaise sauce, poach eggs ... then assemble. (Incidentally, warming drawers were invented for just this sort of meal. Because unless you have one of those handy little multiple egg-poaching devices which seem not to exist any more, not to mention a toaster that will happily toast X muffins at one time, for a given value of X, you are very unlikely to be able to have all the ingredients ready at the same time.)

Whatever, the only difference between the standard version and my decadent (and, in my humble opinion, much better) variety is the inclusion of a slab of foie gras in there, between the bacon and the poached egg. Whichever you prefer, do not have a light hand with the chives.

And something that goes surprisingly well with these is a decent coleslaw, proper American job with apples and raisins and grated carrot in with the sliced cabbage, marinated for a couple of days in that sweet condensed-milk and vinegar dressing. Just in case you were wondering.

Bootnote: on the front page of one of those celebrity lifestyle/voyeuristic titillation magazines that the French love was this magnificent headline: "L'histoire fabuleuse du clitoris". I don't think you need to rush off to Google Translate to get the picture.