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.

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