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.

1 comment:

  1. falling out between the supplier of the pig and the person who arranged the slaughterhouse - they were lovers and it turned sour

    I am not sure where the pig fits into the pronouns here. Nor am I sure whether I want to know.