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.


  1. how many times a month do those of you out there not cook
    Takeaway curry once a week.

    Beziers, which is a surprisingly large city.
    AND the world centre for spline production.

  2. In response to your unscientific study, once a week. We do our supermarket shopping on a week night and buy what we call "sad bastard" food for tea: a phrase coined by us in the 80's watching lonely middle age men stocking up on "heat and eats". Now of course everyone does it. At weekends, we go as far as making our own pasta, curry pastes/powders, bread etc. We also frequent the fresh food markets - we now buy a lot more on the day than weekly. Favourite pot: my Le Creuset casserole. Favourite knife: my medium sized Sebatier. How appropriately froggie.

  3. what's a 'spline'? (I know I shall probably regret asking...)

    and in response to your survey - probably less than once a week, I enjoy cooking too much. Gonna start a cooking blog (but may not share the url widely as I do not wish to be compared with the drool-inducing offerings posted here on a regular basis).

  4. Whackypedia can answer your question, a Bezier spline is a sort of curve, defined by some points and some other stuff. Go look it up. Do let me know how to get to your cooking, when you get around to it. Please?