Sunday, December 30, 2012

This Is The Year That Was ...

For your viewing pleasure, in full Sensurround Playmobil action, some of the highlights of 2012 in our little village ...

April 2012

The inauguration of the new (only slightly second-hand) municipal cesspit (provisionally named "The House at Pooh Corner", although a committee is working busily on that, from 9 to 5 most days at Le Bar du Centre) goes swimmingly. M. le Maire, carrying his ceremonial crossbow and supported by his faithful bodyguard, performs the ceremony as the St-Pierre Olympic Synchronised Pushup squad provide entertainment for the crowd.

Luckily the life-saving team from le lac de Carouge were also on hand (mostly, let it be admitted, for the vin d'honneur liberally distributed this time, the mayor being notoriously stingy on most public occasions) and so the legless bastard baby (that's the family name, people - Batârd - in full, Anatole François Colroulé de Morve du Batârd, and understandably enough he started drinking at an early age) was rescued before the mixer blades got turned on.

June 2012

There was great consternation at the discovery of an Amusing Vegetable, origins to this day unknown, in the bounds of the commune. Despite the heroic efforts of sous-officier, gendarme adjoint and garde de corps personnel to M. le Maire Blot, who sign-posted the spot and barricaded the creature at great personal risk, the day was not without casualties: sadly, the legume was not only Amusing but also Carnivorous, and so the good folk of St-Pierre will no longer be entertained by the antics of M. & Mme. Ours (please do note that France has no problems with marriage between people, or whatever, of different colours), nor their courageous dog Spot.

But after the ensuing firefight (which did not, as a matter of record, start before the savage carrot willfully attacked the free-loading sponging welfare bears, who probably deserved it anyway, they're not like us you know) there was a free distribution of mixed vegetable salad to all St-Pierrans of sound mind and correct gender, also having voted for M. le Maire, so there's a silver lining to everything if you know where to look for it ...

Octoberfest 2012

The Glorious Cheery People's Working Republic of St-Pierre attempts the launch of a Pudong 3 "Short Trot" nuclear interceptor, with the aim of putting into orbit a Snot IV satellite to demonstrate our peaceful intentions and solidarity with the oppressed proletariat of the planet.

Sadly, despite the perhaps over-enthusiastic use of accelerant the blue touch-paper failed to ignite, so the world stays deprived of crackly Savoyard folk-songs and the collected uplifting thoughts of M. le Maire on the short-wave radio bands. For we know that over there you only have scratchy cats' whiskers radios, and I must take a photo of one soon for it takes a lot of shaven cats to get a decent-quality whisker, and the cats are not exactly happy about it either, but over here in the Glorious Peoples Republic we has invented the transistor. Admittedly, at 6"x4"x4" it is not yet exactly miniature, but we're working on that. Up at le Bar du Centre.

On a happier note, the abortive launch did mean that the rescue helicopter (unfortunately missing its rotors, due to the prevalence of criminal delinquency amongst the youth of today, not to mention M. Squat the scrap-metal dealer) was not needed to airlift Chief Engineer LeCrotte (who wears his traditional Chief Engineer's headgear with pride, and some aplomb) to safety, nor was the attentive crowd incinerated by the blast. We'll get them next time.

December 2012

M. le Maire is unexpectedly attacked by a unicorn and an extra-galactic slug, to the applause of the crowd of constituents (lit. "les applaudissements de la foule") who had come to complain about the shocking state of the drains. Fortunately the absence of a safety-catch on the ceremonial crossbow meant that he could return fire immediately, thus doubtless saving the day for humanity.

The slug has since been integrated into the municipal workforce as Chief Sewage Inspector, ably replacing the prior incumbent M. Deliquescens, whom everyone had long thought didn't really have his heart in the job, and was only going through the motions.

The unicorn escaped from intensive care at the local old people's home (apparently along with a number of other inmates, at least they've not been seen again recently) but has been sighted from time to time sprinkling fairy dust in local gardens.

Watch This Space! for more exciting news from St-Pierre d'Albigny, in the New Year.

Bring On The Christmas Spirits ...

So continuing a fine old family tradition, or some musty ancient charter or something, I have decided on a butterflied, barbecued leg of lamb for our Christmas lunch. Plucked it from the freezer, let it defrost, and now it's marinating in olive oil and lemon juice and herbes de Provence before its immolation in a few days. Mind you, I think I'll probably finish it off in the oven for the last half hour, mainly because there are other things to be got ready and I can't be disappearing down to the courtyard every five minutes to check on the thing.

Still not sure what to have as an entrée, coquilles St-Jacques would certainly be nice but I'm not entirely certain that I'll be able to find any in the supermarkets on Monday due to general panic-buying by people who find themselves with only a couple of kilos of the things so I might have to formulate a Plan B. I have some red cabbage (it looked so sweetly at me from the market stall, runt of the litter) and some carrots and apples, so a decent coleslaw is not out of the question and that does go rather nicely with eggs Benedict ...

Bryan, Beckham and Stacey are supposed to be turning up some time around mid-day, we'll see how that works out for we are in France, more specifically in Savoie which is known for le petit quart d'heure Savoyard ie nothing ever happens on time, so eating will probably not be committed before 14:00. At the earliest.

OK, been there, done that. For some strange reason felt inclined to stay up until 2am cooking, so made up a few batches of bastard puff and got some little feuilletés aux pommes et au chèvre ready and, with the help of a bottle that's been sitting in the pantry for some time, some proper mince pies: and while I was at it some mini pommes Anna to go with the lamb. And as there was - always is - leftover pastry, that turned into an apple crisp for breakfast, with brown sugar and pomegranate molasses dribbled over the top.

The most time-consuming part, really, was getting the eggs Benedict ready, as it involves poaching each and every egg individually, given that I don't have one of those totally unfindable egg-poacher thingies. (Mind you, Beckham thought that was great. Either that, or she was seriously taking the piss when she said "Oh! Are you poaching the eggs? It's really clever, the way you make the water go round. But don't the eggs get dizzy?" The balance of probabilities is, I suspect, on the side of piss-taking.) That, and getting the barbecue burning nicely, and then going down to watch over the lamb as it cooked.

And this morning, as I got on to the access ramp for the autoroute, I just couldn't help myself: "Fark!" I said, with feeling. I'd left the house under a bright blue sky, with a song in my heart and a smile on my lips, but that vague feeling of goodwill towards all person-kind rather quickly evaporated as I realised that I had, in fact, forgotten that today is the first of the chassées-croisées, when those who've gone skiing over Christmas go home and those who are planning on skiing over New Year head on up.

So once again the autoroute kind of looks like a sewer full of Parisians and other races: smelly, bloated and slow. On the bright side it only took me 20 minutes to get to Montmelian where I gratefully got off and took the back roads, unencumbered by anything more than other locals, doing exactly as I was, and the odd Dutch-person religiously following their GPS, which had told them that the D155 was, if not exactly on their itinerary, a good way to get home. Maybe.

(Which brings to mind The Cars That Ate Paris, if any of you remember that little gem from way-back-when.)

The point, in any case, was that feeling all chipper and dashing and happy, garbèd I was in a decent white shirt and black bow-tie and the coat of many colours, ready to do battle with the old haglings at the market, and here I was stuck on some unspeakable small road behind a learner driver, some guy with a trailer loaded with unmentionables, and two Belgians in Volvos, all of whom apparently could not count higher than 20 'cos that's the speed we were doing.

Until we got into Chambéry itself, where our little caravan met up with others: a trickle of Germans here, five Dutch at a roundabout, a very lost-looking English Range Rover at one cross-road and a flock of Spaniards, traveling in convoy, screeching to a halt at a pedestrian crossing.

At which point, not having a malfunctioning GPS and, above all, not being demonstrably lost, I decided that they could bloody well get on without me, parked without paying (betting on the spirit of Christmas to protect me from the attentions of the meter maids) on one of the little side streets just underneath Bryan's place, and trotted off to the market on foot.

(Some people, incidentally, just will not take the simple option, and stop to ask for directions. Partly, no doubt, because they know that these directions will be barked out rapid-fire in some incomprehensible foreign language that sounds like a duck choking on its own vomit. Authoritative studies show, incidentally, that about 100% of these people are men. Just saying. And believe me, I know, I'm one of them.)

Whatever, I can't complain too much because it meant that as I returned (with rather longer arms, due to gravity and all those kilos of clementines and greenery and above all cheesery in the shopping basket) I was more or less obliged, even forced, to stop off as I passed by for a quick restorative at the Beer Tree. Where I discovered that they had - finally - managed to remove that recalcitrant cork but bar-owners being, as a rule, an abstemious lot, had not yet managed to finish the bottle, so we downed it together.

Not, let it be admitted, a wine for every occasion, but as an apéro or, if you subscribe to the "vin moelleux with foie gras" school of thought rather than being one of the righteous who prefer the driest white you can lay your hands on, then why not go for that, or else with dessert. But certainly a wine to be tried. Shall have to see if Bruno can't get me another case of the stuff.

Completely off-topic, I have found that should you happen to have a butternut squash in your possession you could probably do worse than to peel it and cut it into thick circular slices, from which you get to remove the seeds and crap before frying them, like steaks, in butter.

That's not all, because while they're frying you also need to fry up, at a minimum, some onions and diced poivron with a good sprinkle of decent curry powder: kidney beans, sweetcorn, why not some blettes as well? So put the pumpkin steaks on baking paper on a tray, and fill the middles with this vegetable mixture, preferably bound with some blue cheese: into the oven with it. If you leave a little hollow on the top, you could probably break an egg into it about five minutes before you plan on eating.

Simple, see? I like simple. Also, it's a good way of getting rid of those awkward bits of left-over vegetables that always seem to accumulate, at least around our place.

And it went quite nicely with the simple steaks, quickly seared and served with a slice of foie gras and sauce béarnaise on top, that we were more or less forced to have due to the presence in the fridge of half a tin of foie gras, left over from the eggs Benedict. Waste not, want not, as they say.

Anyway, having got through Christmas everyone's preparing for New Year, which will involve even more oysters, smoked salmon, champagne and you name it. Which goes some way to explaining why, if another reason were necessary, I am currently avoiding Carrefour like the plague.

So in keeping with yet another fine old family tradition, I rather think we'll be taking it quietly this year. Not exactly to the point of swilling hot cocoa as we vegetate in front of the teeveehee (there's nowt to watch on at the moment anyway, we are reduced to catching up on Elementary and others that we didn't have the time to watch earlier), but not far from it.

Happy New Year to you all, see you in 2013 I suppose. If all goes as we'd hope, somewhere warmer, down in the Aude. Take care now, and mind how you go.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

And Blow Me Away ...

For some strange reason I'm reminded of an old friend from my Massey days, one Keith Carwell-Cooke. A short, tubby bearded bespectacled guy, some 30 years older than the rest of us slackers doing philosophy and other wishy-washy subjects, he'd trained in a seminary and got kicked out of holy orders when he decided that atheism was not entirely compatible with the tenets of the Catholic church, and that he wanted nothing to do with pederasty.

He had a wicked sense of humour, a Broadspeed VW Beetle (which had a dozen extra dials to tell you about oil temperature and such, and was prone to making farting noises and spending time at the garage), and was one of the best cooks I've ever known. In fact, he's probably the one that inspired me to start cooking. And his authentic RAF punch was positively lethal.

He made our wedding cake, spending months pouring whisky over it - it was so liquid Jeannie nearly chucked it, but happily left it time to rest for a bit and no-one complained (except those who didn't get enough) - he also died a long while back, don't know why but somehow it seems appropriate to drink to his memory tonight. Here's one for you, Keith - only Chilean cabernet, but I don't think you'd mind.

Anyway, Sunday night it was on to the TGV and off to Paris to see my mates Jean-Pierre and Denis at the SNCF, in Vitry sur Seine. It always involves them paying us money, which is good, and J-P handed over a couple of pots of his own honey, so I'm definitely ahead. On the other hand he's had to stop the piggy stuff (complicated story, falling out between the supplier of the pig and the person who arranged the slaughterhouse - they were lovers and it turned sour, didn't ask for details) which means no rillettes nor confit de porc and at this rate I might just have to supply him with some lard paysan.

This was all done on relatively short notice, so I booked in at the Hotel de la Gare at Vitry, which has the advantage of being, as its name suggests, just a sparrow-crap stone's throw from the station: luckily the windows are relatively sound-proof. It's a long, narrow building going back from the road, reminded me of hotels I've stayed in in Africa: some hotels have seen better days, but this is not one of those. This one started off like that. But the beds are comfortable, and I've had far worse breakfasts.

On the other hand, there is an enormous radiator on the wall to which there is (loosely) attached a knob, which I would normally assume to be for turning the heat up and down. It seems to go round, in either direction, for as long as you have the patience to keep turning it: I guess it's not actually connected to anything useful. The beds are actually warm just from the ambient heat, because however you turn the knob it's always about 45°.

And the hot water system is - particular. Mind you, that's French plumbing in general, in my experience. Geniuses, in a twisted way. Whatever, I can live with being pummelled with very hot water, if the alternative is freezing under a trickle of a douche écossaise. And it's always a relief to discover that the "towels" are down to the usual French hotel standard: you could possibly use one as a handkerchief, but drying yourself with one is nigh-on impossible, and trying to hide behind one due to some hilarious locked-out-of-the-bathroom slip-up à la Benny Hill would probably see you arrested for gross indecency. Also, unspecified but general offenses against good taste.

Also, just saying and I'm not sure I really want to know, there are these people coming into the dining room and words are exchanged in low tones and then thick wads of bank-notes also change hands. None of my business.

But to be completely fair, Vitry is a dump, a sort of old industrial sinkhole, but even it has its magic moments. Like early in the morning, under a sullen grey sky heavy with rain when you could be forgiven for thinking that it was midnight, when the harsh glare from the neons at the gare makes the rain on the streets sparkle and glisten. I probably should have taken the camera after all.

Whatever, we went off and lunched at a new Lebanese restaurant (you can tell J-P has climbed in the SNCF hierarchy, it's not the staff canteen these days) and in between nibbling at the mezzés and sipping wine we took time to lament the passing of honest French restaurant cuisine. How, he asked (don't worry, this was metaphorical or rhetorical or something and I didn't actually have to answer, just nod my head and drink) can a restaurant offer a choice of twenty different plats?

After a healthy swig I was going to give a reasoned answer but just as I took breath I was interrupted, for he was in full swing - they can't, not unless they buy them in frozen or sous-vide and reheat them as required. And then the only thing required by law to advertise them as "cuisine maison" is the addition of a sauce, or a bit of chopped parsley: not particularly onerous, but some restaurants don't even bother with that. I am not going to tell you about some of the frites maison I have eaten, it would put you off. (Mind you, some of them may have been authentically maison, just prepared by a frightfully bad cook. This too happens.)

Anyway, it's Saturday now - only a few more days until Christmas - and I headed off with the firm intention of just whipping through the market and avoiding Carrefour like the plague. A good resolution, and I even managed to stick to it, so around 11am I found myself at the Beer Tree, and for once not empty handed: I'd thought to bring along a bottle of Bruno's excellent Uby as a Christmas present.

(Mind you, the Dutch are all over the bloody autoroutes headed up to the mountains. Can't wait to get away from the omnipresent pigshit and the artificial tomatoes for a week up in avalanche country, I suppose. Whatever, it looked like an enormous peristaltic surge of yellow-and-black numberplates, luckily going the other way from me.)

Given the hour the place was empty, not even officially open, so it seemed like a good moment to open it and have a little apéro: sadly, the cork seemed to have been glued in place, for they ruined three corkscrews on it, without success. So as Simon the cook busily rolled out pastry in the tiny kitchen, we settled for a glass of gewurtztraminer on the house, and toasted everything in sight.

And ate the nibbles, and chatted, as one will, and I discovered that they'd gone off to Brussells for a couple of days and that it was a beautiful city (which it is, I concur) and that the bloody Belgians make excellent beer (which they do), and that they'd taken her Mum up to Paris to visit Versailles - what is going on here? Her mother, it turns out, is sixty! That is only five years older than me, and somehow I cannot see our kids wheeling me on to the TGV to show me around Versailles as I dribble vaguely. There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on here.

Still, as I left she pressed a couple of bottles of artisanal bière de Noël on me, so there's no way the day was wasted. Well, apart from the fact that I was really looking forward to not seeing any old hags about the market, due to the Apocralypse and the world supposedly having ended yesterday. Got it wrong again, I see. So when's our next chance? 2017?

Title, by the way, is that excellent Alice Cooper song, which for some reason is going around in my head at this moment, so I thought you might as well experience that as well. Sorry.

PS - I see I failed to mention the festivities at the local supermarket this evening: probably short-term memory pushed it screaming into that scabbed-over area somewhere in the hind-brain where we keep such things. Briefly, there seems to be a group, called Les Coyotes Danseurs Savoisiens, who get their kicks by dressing in what they fondly imagine to be authentic cowboy duds and committing line dances in public, doubtless with intent. And to Kenny Rogers music, at that. It's a rather ghastly spectacle.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Land Of Ice And Snow ...

You really would not believe just how much cassoulet four twenty-somethings are capable of scarfing down. I looked at what seemed to me a very inadequate pile of meat and rushed off to get a bit more, just in case, and then watched gloomily as three massive duck legs, six smoked sausages and a half kilo of smoked poitrine de porc sizzled in the duck fat, with the saucisse à l'ail held in reserve, for later.

It also never ceases to amaze me just how much dried beans will swell when you leave them to soak overnight, and they got even bigger as they simmered in white wine for an hour or so ... the challenge, of course, was finding something big enough in which to mix the mess of beans and wine with tomato pulp and onion. I do have one of those German earthenware thingies, so I wound up ladling the beans and liquid from the big sauteuse into the bottom and the lid of that, dividing the meat between them, and then pouring the rest of the beans over.

Covered both halves tightly with tin-foil and into a slow oven (about 160-170° is fine) for a couple of hours, then topped them up with more wine and stuck the sliced garlic sausage in there as well, then back into the oven for a final hour. I reckon there must have been at least ten litres of the stuff.

Guessing that that might not be enough, and having scanned through La Méthode, while all that was going on more or less by itself, I made up a batch of bastard puff, rolled it out really thinly on baking paper and used it (still on the paper, facilitates removal and reduces the washing-up) to line a lamington tin. This so that your pastry has walls: you can do that by folding the pastry over at the edges and crimping it with your fingers, but I wanted to be absolutely certain that the custard wasn't going to leak.

Pépin recommends that you blind-bake the shell and for once I didn't feel like fiddling too much so that's what I did, but I did think to put another sheet of baking paper on top with some dried beans, to stop the centre puffing up too much, which turned out to be a pretty good idea. The custard itself is just three eggs beaten up with a half-cup of sugar and the grated rind of two lemons until very white and stiff, at which point you beat in three teaspoons of cornflour and the juice of those two lemons. Pour that into the pastry shell, arrange very thin slices of a nude lemon on top, and into the bottom of the oven with it for fifteen minutes or so.

Anyway, we settled down to the table and looked in awe as the yoof spooned great steaming mounds of beans'n'meat onto their plates and then, ten minutes of solid munching later, repeated the performance. As I write, I note that there's just about enough for one person sitting forlornly in a plate: maybe Tony can give it the coup de grace at lunchtime. As for the galette au citron, that got cut into six portions and duly disappeared in its turn: we did, however, pass on the cheese course.

Sunday wasn't much better either: Jacques turned up in the afternoon to say goodbye to someone he kind of looks on as a grand-daughter, and incidentally give her a few recipes she treasures (for his special pate brisée, and the appareil that goes on top for his passionfruit tart) and when he left I got back to cooking again. Didn't have any passionfruit though, made do with some raspberries out of the freezer which made a more than acceptable substitute.

Whatever, it's Monday now and the pair of them fly out tonight, which is why I'm looking rather suspiciously at the great fat flakes coming down. They really do not want to miss that flight, and it would be a shame if some dim-ass lorry driver jack-knifed his truck and blocked the autoroute. Yes, I know, they don't have to be there before 18:30 so in principle leaving home at 16:00 leaves plenty of margin, but the snow truly does get me uptight.

When they do arrive over there, please take care of them. (If you don't, Tony may well introduce you to one of those Glasgow specialties which, collectively, go under the name of GBH.) Malyon really wants a barbecue on the beach for Christmas, and I can assure you that it's much easier, and that she's much more pleasant, if she gets her way.

From the same people that brought you "The Correct Order In Which To Piss And Apply Tiger Balm", a handy health advisory (also available as a video, should that interest anyone), we now have Food Safety N°3: "Always Read The Fine Print On Chickens". A simple enough precaution, but sad to say one that I neglected the other day when I came across a cheap poulet fermier. Because had I taken the trouble to look at the tiny writing at the bottom, just below the end-user licence and the user manual, I might have seen that it was "à bouillir".

Yes, it was indeed a boiling fowl. Doubtless had a long and happy life, as fulfilling as a chicken's life could be said to be, running around and eating worms and healthy grain (emphatically not reprocessed pig-shit, although exactly why they bother reprocessing the stuff when the pig's done a pretty decent job already I will never know) and growing older and putting on lots of muscle and sinew, until finally death took her. And he, or one of his merry band of little helpers, stuck her in a plastic bag and eventually, in the course of things, she arrived on a supermarket shelf near us. And I did not read the label, and took her home.

Have to admit that the smell was quite appetizing as the beast cooked, but the proof of the pudding is, as they say ... the eating was a lengthy exercise, we might have lost out on the deal, losing calories thanks to all the jaw work. There were leftovers: kebab filling maybe, and just for once I might make up some chicken stock, with an eye to onion soup later on.

A random thought: after all these years I'm kind of used to it, and it just fades into the background noise, but sometimes something happens to remind me that the French - and in particular, French banks - have a different idea of what customer service is than do you or I. Upstart banks with the CIC, an institution which has two branches in Chambery: head office in Avenue du Comte Vert, another in place St Leger. The first is closed on Saturday but open on Monday; the other, opposite-wise.

So, having a bank transfer to do on a Monday, I headed off confidently to head office to do the deed, and was delighted to read the little notice stuck up on the (bolted) doors: "In order to provide better customer service, and to better fulfill your expectations, we will be closed on Mondays from henceforth". I mean, who the frak do they think they're fooling? It's not as though there were angry mobs around on a Monday moaning, waving pitchforks and flaming faggots, demanding that the place be shut down. Not that I'd ever noticed, anyway.

OK, there was one bit of truth in there: this sort of thing definitely does fulfill my already pretty low expectations. And I sometimes cannot help but think that just possibly the absence of bank tellers, busily discussing their latest manicure over the phone with their copine at head office and lamenting the inadequacies of their boyfriend in certain departments, might well improve the customer experience. Just saying.

(As an aside, on the - locked - door through to the office area there was a prominent sign marked "PULL". Next to that, as smaller sign, saying something along the lines of  "Push this door if you want to speak to an advisor". You'd think they could get their stories straight.)

Yet another random thought - neurons are having a good day today - if you find yourself looking for a light lunch and have nowt in the fridge but some puff pastry, spinach or silverbeet, and a couple of eggs, do not despair! Oeufs florentines will be your saviour. Well, technically speaking, it's a croustade florentine, but let's not worry about the cooking Nazis, shall we?

Assuming there's just two of you, you should line a couple of small (5" diameter) tart moulds with that pastry, and here's a handy hint: should you find yourself, for some reason, without such moulds, just crumple up some tinfoil and form that into a ring, then put that onto baking paper on a tray. And drape the pastry over that, pushing it gently down into the middle so it's sitting on the paper. It has worked for me, on a number of occasions when I've had to do this sort of thing in kitchens that are unaccountably bereft of a wide selection of such useful things.

Those go into a hot oven for five minutes, which is plenty of time to wash, dry, slice and then fry the spinach or whatever in butter, with a bit of onion or garlic if you like (I like) until nicely wilted. This gets divided amongst the pastry cases and duly seasoned with salt and pepper, and I personally stick a spoonful or two of chopped tomato or tinned tomato pulp over that, before either breaking an egg onto it or, if you prefer, sticking a poached egg on there. You might like to sprinkle some grated cheese over that lot, before putting it back in the oven.

Won't take too long to cook, and a minute before you take it out, pouring some cream over is also, in my book, a Good Idea. It's hot, has buttery pastry and everything else you need - on top of that, it's quick, cheap and easy. What more could one ask for?

I discovered, quite by accident, something else the other day: namely, that overcooking pork is quite difficult, at least around here. I had a rolled piggy shoulder that had roasted for a little while in white wine and carrots and onions and garlic and it was fine but a bit pink still in the middle, so I had the brilliant idea of sticking it, still in its terrine dish, into the woodburner to finish off for an hour or so. At which point I went to bed. You spot the deliberate mistake there?

I remembered the next morning and hastily pulled it out - not that a few minutes either way were going to make much difference, after eight hours slow cooking - to find that although it had rather shrunk the meat had glazed nicely and was everything it should have been: soft, juicy and tender. Maybe I should do that sort of thing more often.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Definitely NOT the Summer Of Love ...

It's a sad commentary on the times in which we live that some poor soul apparently got here by googling "chaussée aux moines oven baked". For one thing who, apart from the French, could possibly have heard of "Chaussée aux Moines", that sort of industrial "dairy" product (in the sense that casein shirt-buttons could accurately be classified as such) with aspirations to cheesiness and a label, probably more nutritious than its contents, depicting a jolly well-fed monk about to bite into a hunk of creamy glistening goodness? With a tankard of foaming ale to hand. Possibly to drown it, should it decide to fight back. (Truth in advertising standards oblige me to state that the "ale" is probably, indeed, piss.)

For another, who in their right mind would consider sticking the damn stuff in the oven? At worst, it could explode: the best you could hope for would be melt-down, which still leaves you with a layer of yellowish slime on the bottom of the oven tray. And a sort of grayish crôute, stuck to the walls of the oven. And a stinky kitchen.

I suppose that if you had a none-too-bright and not too picky dog they might help you out with it, but I can't see the point myself. If you want melted plastic there are other, easier ways of getting it. On the other hand, a reblochon (which actually means "twice-milked") is marvelous in a tartiflette - I'll get onto that in a bit - and a vacherin has to be smelled to be believed.

Because it seems that back in the day the Savoyard tenant farmers were taxed on the milk their herds produced, as seems more or less fair and reasonable, or at least contractual. But being peasants they tended not to agree with this concept of paying someone else if it was neither necessary nor avoidable, so rather than milking the cows dry they would do a first milking, pay the owner on the results, and then do a second milking later on when he'd buggered off - this second milking giving something much richer in cream, and the crafty sods would use this to make their own cheese. Which was, given the circumstances, called a "reblochon".

You'd think that over the years the farm-owners would have got wise to this little ruse, but it's a tribute to the legendary stupidity of the Savoyards that apparently this was not the case, and the custom went on for centuries. (I guess that the whey from the first milking went on to become "Chaussée aux Moines", but I could be wrong. And would definitely be digressing.) Or maybe the owners were smarter than they seemed, saw no reason to make waves, and just factored this circumstance into the price. Which would have course have meant that an honest tenant would be penalised but that's a purely hypothetical situation as "honest" and "peasant" are kind of antithetical.

In any case a tartiflette can be a wonderful thing. In its simplest, and best, incarnation, it's nowt but cubes or slices of potato mixed with fried lardons and some finely chopped onion, all of which get stuck into a large gratin dish, covered with cream, and then get a reblochon cheese, cut in half, stuck on top with the cut side down before going into the oven for an hour. After which the potatoes are soft and melting, the cheese has luxuriantly dribbled into them, and there is a crispy crust which you may, if you wish (and some people really really like this) nibble on.

You could probably do some greens to go with that, if you wish, but let me warn you that no-one will touch them. I know, I've tried. Oh, don't even think of trying to do that with a camembert, or a brie. Won't. Work.

As for the vacherin, or Mont d'Or as they tend to call it around here, it's a soft cheese that's plonked into a round mould made from pine, once it's old enough to actually have some sort of self-respect and a crust to hold itself together, and then left to fester in isolated spots. As it does this the guts actually turn back into a creamy blend and the thin crust distorts until it looks like it's got a case of elephantiasis compounded with acne, at which point a French-person would stick it, still in its little pine box, into the oven until it's hot and runny, then spoon it out over potatoes or something and eat it like a fondue. You really should try that, if ever you get a chance.

Whatever, just to really annoy me it started snowing again today, half-way through the afternoon. And the in Chambéry, that turned to vicious sleet, just so that the roads go icy. Which made for a long slow trip back home tonight: the sleet had turned to abundant rain so I (foolishly) decided to take the nationale, only to come up behind someone who had apparently decided that the speed limit, in times of snow, was 40kph when the road was clear, and that it was a good idea to start slowing down for traffic lights about 2km away.

And then, approaching Saint-Pierre, it turned out that it was not raining but still snowing, and just to add to my pleasure the snow-ploughs were all either tucked up in the warm with a note from their mothers, or out doing anything but get rid of the snow in our street. If I never see that white stuff again, it will not be too soon.

Anyway, our favourite daughter has apparently made known her desires for food when she and Tony turn up in a couple of days: hot, filling French peasant grub. If I manage to find a decent bit of basse-côte tomorrow I suppose that, after marinating in wine and vinegar and garlic and shallots for a few days, we could eat boeuf batellerie (that's "bargee's beef", if you prefer) in the weekend. I'm pretty sure there are still some anchovies in the fridge, for the sauce.

And I'm given to understand that almost any dessert I care to make will be eagerly eaten, so I guess clafouti and tarte tatin will be committed, and as our neurotic potted lemon tree has blessed us with two ripe lemons just maybe lemon meringue pie will be on the menu too. Although I have a vague memory of a rustic lemon tart from Jacques Pepin, maybe I should go look that up. Provided it involves a cooked custard Margo will eat it.

Right, so I braved Carrefour in December yesterday (actually got in and out without killing anyone, which took a lot of restraint) and found that meat, which has been duly smeared with crushed garlic and chopped parsley, placed on a bed of chopped onions and thyme, and is now sitting there awash in red wine, vinegar and olive oil. Turn it tonight I guess, and then in a day or two it goes into the little sauteuse with the strained marinade, gets brought to a slow simmer, then covered and sits on the stove-top for three hours or so.

At the end of that time my cook-book tells me sternly that all the liquid will have been absorbed or evaporated (and if this is not the case I must be doing something wrong) and that I should remove the meat and put it under tinfoil (to avert the mind-control rays from the black UN helicopters, I suppose) in the oven whilst I reduce a half-bottle of red to sod-all, with some shallots. And when that's done the sauce gets enriched with some of the anchovy butter I just happen to have lying around, and poured over the meat. That sounds pretty good to me, either with jacket potatoes as suggested, or maybe a creamy gratin dauphinois.

So I was chatting with my favourite camionneur again, the weedy red-headed guy (and from now on, when I refer to WRG, you'll know who I mean), swapping recipes as one will and talking about suitable meals for the season, and I happened to mention that I planned on doing a cassoulet in that big German earthenware pot I have. "So", says WRG, "in the stove? Bitch on electricity." "Not at all", I replied, "for I happen to have an old wood-burner in the kitchen, came with the house". "Pute!", he said, "I went out and bought one brand new! Cost an arm and a leg, being cast-iron, but worth every cent, the steel ones are shit."

From whence the conversation turned to pots and pans, and how Teflon is crap and toxic to boot, and there's nowt better than stainless steel. I got incredibly jealous as the guy apparently acquired a collection of professional  stainless steel cookware from various family members. Turns out he actually trained as a patissier, which I suppose just goes to show.

Oh, and I would just like to say that in my opinion, 40cm of snow is at least 39cm too many. Took the train in on Friday - luckily enough, as is turned out - under a clear blue sky, but as luck would have it about 10:30 this white soggy stuff started falling, and just never stopped. So by six that evening Chambéry was in total lockdown as lorries and cars careened off the roads: luckily the buses were still running, and the SNCF has not yet learnt that the wrong type of snow can stop a train so they too were, if not actually on time, at least going from A to B. B being, in my case, St Pierre, where I trudged up the hill to get home as conditions were certainly too foul for Margo to think about coming down to pick me up, grateful for the small mercies like the snow having stopped for a bit.

Then it started up again, great soft fat flakes drifting down, and I do have to admit that it's kind of magical. There's no sky, it's like you're inside a soft bowl of light for outside it was indeed almost as bright as day, and the only sound is the susurration as the snow falls. And the odd obscene cry as someone else finds themselves in a ditch, but let's pass that one over in silence.

And so this morning I woke, bright and early (well, not really bright because the room was in fact extremely dim, due to the velux being covered by a thick layer of snow, but it was 8am which, for a Saturday, I for one am inclined to call "early") to find the house surrounded by the aforementioned 40cm or so of snow. The guy with the snowplough had been busy for some time for the roads were clear, unfortunately I was not as grateful as I could have been because he had managed to bank great mounds of snow up against the shutters on the door onto the street so not only was I wrathful and wished to smite him, I'm afraid I swore. A bit.

But the sky was blue and sunny as I trudged down to the car with the snow shovel, and carved a couple of tracks from car to road: exercise I could happily have forgone were it not for the fact that, fairly obviously, we had not been able to do the grocery shopping Friday night and were in dire need of wine and coffee, at a minimum.

When I did finally get to the market it was mostly deserted, which is normally a Good Thing but sad to say it wasn't only the customers that were lacking, half the stall-holders hadn't shown up either, which is a bit of a bugger. Still, I managed to find some more grenaille, which is always good, and some pain bio (which turned out, as will happen, to be very earnest and good-intentioned but, sad to say, rather on the heavy side) and got out before it started snowing seriously again.

At which point it was off to Carrefour, where I almost lost it. Not so much trudging around the aisles, full of happy couples searching for foie gras and oysters, without which Christmas would not be complete, just the petty small-mindedness: so they have these express DIY checkouts at Carrefour, only hiccup is that the rule is no shopping trolleys. Fair enough. And so  the family in front of me at the line have a trolley, piled high with crap: they send the kids off to get little shopping baskets, into which they distribute the loot. And get rid of the trolley. Which ran over my foot as they did so, but the witch did apologize so I guess that's OK then. And then, with their three or four overflowing baskets, they go through the "express" checkout.

I mean, you have to wonder what the point of the exercise was. If it was to piss everyone off, it was a success. Didn't seem to worry them though, which I suppose just goes to show that there are small-minded mean-spirited little twats everywhere. You do not have a monopoly on those, I'm afraid.

Leave you with this happy poetical thought, I guess most of you know it anyway:

Blood on the staircase
Blood on the mat
Christopher Robin's
Castrated the cat

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Gotta Get Out Of This Place ...

It hits me every year about this time: why oh why, of all the places we could have picked, did we choose somewhere that it snows on a regular basis? It came to me yesterday morning, as I blearily fumbled my way out of bed and looked up to see the velux windows covered in bloody white stuff, which was still drifting down from a sullen gray sky. It didn't last, of course - turned to chilly rain, didn't it? - but it was definitely enough to start me off.

Mind you, even I have to admit that it's beautiful. At night, the Bauges up above us with a blue-black sky behind, a few timid stars and dusted with snow like icing sugar.

I know I mentioned that it's time for things like civet de cerf, and having time on my hands Tuesday lunch-time I wandered down into Chambéry and found myself, as so often, at the Beer Tree. Where I panicked for a minute, for the menu had nothing to do with what I'd been promised, but that was sheer laziness on their part, they hadn't gotten around to wiping off the blackboard and changing it. And so, within ten minutes of plonking my arse at the table, I had an enormous plate with a little poelée de champignons, a rice timbale, a fresh crusty roll and a heap of soft, tender, gamey Bambi bathed in the marinade in which it had slowly cooked. (OK, so personally I might have thickened it a tad with a bit of beurre manié, but that's just me.)

Also, a pichet of cabernet which is, as any fule kno, a sovereign remedy for cold weather if applied internally. It's a serious pleasure, eating like that, and it kept me occupied for some time. But all good things come to an end some time, so around 14:00 I heaved myself up and waddled over to pay.

Sadly, the credit card machine was on the blink, so what happened? I got told to pay next time I popped in, that's what. Does that happen often? I did tell them to be sure to note it down, plat du jour and a pichet de 50cl, I'd hate them to short-change themselves on Saturday when I go past.

Now might be a good moment to mention what we're eating at home too: there's a leek, butternut and bacon soup with a dash of curry simmering away on the stove, awaiting a brief encounter with the immersion blender.

I'd planned on lasagna for tonight but as I had to whip off to Carrefour to get a few emergency bottles of red wine the steaks tempted me for once (the devil made me do it) and there were affordable tins of foie gras so guess what, there's bastard béarnaise ready, the brussels sprouts and the baby potatoes have been steamed and are even as we speak rissoling in some duck fat, and in about thirty seconds those juicy bits of meat are going to join them in the sauteuse.

The lasagna can wait until tomorrow, I rather think.

Oh yes, as it's the season there are also great chunks of beef bathing in red wine and olive oil, with carrots and leeks and garlic and juniper berries: I'll fish them out on Saturday, sear them quickly and then stick them back in to simmer away for three hours or so.

Mad Karen and Philippe are currently in the throes of getting ready to prepare to begin to build: yes, the process is indeed that drawn-out. But they cannot wait to get out of the house they're currently renting at Mumblefuck, especially in this season: as Karen says, there's no double-glazing, sod-all insulation, the high ceiling in the living area means all the heat floats uselessly about at something like 4m altitude, and the dump was built on a concrete pad in direct contact with the ground, and the damp is not so much rising as risen.

If ever, by some miracle and the reckless expenditure of your entire retirement fund on heating, you manage to get a room warm, it is an instant steam bath. She reckons that bulldozing the place would be doing it a favour.

But that is not their immediate problem. They have bought land at Seyssel and would kind of like to build there: first of all, they have to have it confirmed that the land is actually classified as constructible. You'd think that would be simple enough: apparently this turns out not to be the case. So six months later, they're still waiting to find out.

The next problem is getting someone to draw up plans with which they're comfortable. You can actually pay an architect to do that, I guess, and be in the enviable position of living in an "architect-designed" (read, "totally impractical") house but that does cost rather a whack of cash so, like most mere mortals, they are trying to persuade the builders to modify their stock plans in such a way that all parties concerned come out of it convinced that it's someone else that's lost.

But it is hard work: you can specify four toilets, an actual door from the laundry out onto the terrace rather than a window, parent's room as far away - on another planet, if that were possible - as can be from the kids' rooms, and NO OPEN-PLAN LIVING until you're blue in the face, the plan will inevitably show one toilet (downstairs), all the bedrooms on the same corridor (upstairs), a vast open space around the french windows out onto the deck and a window (a very nice window, admittedly) opening from the laundry to what will become the compost heap. Plus, the kitchen will be a 5km hike with the groceries from where you park the car.

And she is convinced that the French have some sort of unhealthy fixation on toilets. For some reason, she reckons, they are always right next to the front door. Which means that when you turn up somewhere for dinner, first thing you get to check out is the state of the loo. (Not necessarily a bad thing, to be honest.) I cannot honestly say that I'd ever noticed this, but that's probably just me: I shall have to start paying attention when we visit. (Which is rare, and being invited a second time is even rarer.)

Now I don't know whether I'm regressing to some idealised childhood, or I'm becoming more adventurous, or maybe just that the season makes me search out things that look as though they'd make good comfort food, but I do find that these days I tend to buy vegetables at the market that, not so long ago, I'd have sneered at.

Case in point: this morning at the market (bitterly cold by the way, and me without my gloves, thanks so much for your concern) I went in innocently enough and walked out with some blettes (swiss chard to our colonial cousins, but I call it silverbeet), a spaghetti squash, and some topinambours (the Jerusalem, as opposed to globe, artichoke). So what am I going to do with those?

Well actually, the blettes (a blatte looks much the same written down like that but they are not related, the latter being in fact a cockroach and having little culinary interest) will get sliced and fried with bacon before getting mixed with either crumbled Rocquefort or small cubes of chèvre and becoming the guts of a vegetable strudel.

And having spent the best part of a half-hour attacking the little buggers with a scrubbing brush (for they manage to harbour prodigious quantities of mud) I rather suspect that the topinambours will get sliced into thick rondelles and go into the boeuf bourguignon which is even now simmering nicely away on the stove-top, along with carrots and leeks and other like-minded stuff.

But I am at a bit of a loss with this bloody squash. I gather that I am supposed to roast it and then use a fork to pull out the flesh, which should come out in long strands (hence the name), but then what would I do with it. It seems kind of criminal just to serve it like that, couldn't I at least add some nutmeg and a dash of cream for a gratin? Difficult.

There is also, for your information, a faint but unmistakeable smell of cinnamon coming from it as it roasts in the wood-burner. Maybe I should be thinking of dessert, substituting it for chestnut purée.

Oh, don't worry about Mr. Scary-Face over there. A long-dead jurist, and by all accounts a nice man and kind to kittens, so you see appearances can be deceptive. Yes, I did think he looked like one of those Harry Potter things too. It is the palais de Justice, after all. People are supposed to be scared.