Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Praise of Brassicae ...

So, like I said, Jerry is off somewhere near Briançon and now Margo's left for Poitou or something like that, which leaves me rattling around the house with only the animals for company. Not that the dog is much good at that: having the canine equivalent of Alzheimer's she's completely lost without Margo, and rather than go for a walk to discreetly empty her nether regions paces monomaniacally up and down the street in front of the house.

I assume Jerry is doing fine, the only communication I've had from him was a text asking me to transfer some money into his account. To go skiing with the innkeeper's attractive daughter, I guess. He did promise to pay me back, mind you.

It's one of those periods of the year: much of Belgium, and I'd guess at least half their annual potato crop, are on the roads, annoying me by sticking in the left-hand lane and religiously not overtaking. When they go on holiday, the Belgian national cuisine being the only one, to my knowledge, based exclusively on the potato and beer, they bring their own spuds with them, perhaps fearing food-poisoning from the inferior French varieties.

Or more to the point, as they've elevated the pomme frite to the status of a religion (it's probably about the only thing on which the Flemings and the Walloons can agree) they're unwilling to blaspheme by using anything other than annointed Belgian potatoes to make them.

They travel in flocks in ridiculously large cars, and tend to leave small shrines to mark their presence, these usually taking the form of carefully constucted little cairns of beer bottles with dull-coloured labels, exotic and unpronouncable names like "Das Grimsberger Gustpot" or "Jubilator", and eaten away by the appallingly high alcohol content.

Whatever, it could have been worse - at least most of them were heading up to the ski stations rather than back to their homes - so I made it to the market without any noticeable rise in my blood pressure. I was tootling around, squeezing mangos and sneering at those round reddish things that the Dutch like to pretend are tomatoes, when I bumped into Bev - or, more accurately, she bumped into me and addressed me by name.

I'm not really very good at that, but noblesse oblige and all that and I hardly hesitated before blurting out "Oh, hello there ... Bev" (pronounced, à la Blackadder, as "Bob") and, much to my surprise, got it right. (The trick, I've discovered, is to pick a name more or less at random, but speak it so confidently that the other party feels so guilty at not actually being called that, and accepts it - at least temporarily - as their name for the duration.)

So we chatted for a bit and practised snagging passing caddies, earning ourselves some dirty looks from the little old ladies dragging them, before I repaired Chez Liddy. It's usually full - mostly inhabited by elderly men (well, over 65 anyway) - but I was lucky enough to score a table at the back before the rush. Not that it did me much good, for a flock of five came in, talking gaily about their adventures with e-mail and how great it is to be able to send photos of the grand-children off to everyone, and squatted the other seats, leaving me huddled in a corner.

Shouldn't complain, because they ordered a bottle of chilled Macon white and, perhaps feeling a bit guilty or maybe just as an act of spontaneous generosity, served me copiously from it, and the charcuterie that accompanied it. Probably a good thing that I had other stuff to do, for otherwise I might well still be there.

That other stuff, of course, involved le Café de Paris for the usual executive meeting and some health-food. Unfortunately I very nearly got kneecapped by Beckham, as I'd apparently committed the almost unpardonable sin of having heard of Bryan's top-secret plans (which  definitely do not involve setting up a language school which will in no way be in competition with his current employers) before he got around to telling her. I don't see why that should be my fault, but it seems that women see these things differently.

Mind you, she was even more pissed with Bryan, who only managed to wiggle out of it by promising chocolates, flowers and a decent bottle of wine. In my opinion, that woman is very high-maintenance.

It was about that time that Sophie texted to say something along the lines of "Please don't hate me, something's come up and I have to cancel", which left me in the rather embarrasing situation of having everything required, save for the actual cabbage, for a choucroute.

(One of these days I really should get around to making my own cabbagey bits as well. Godnose it's easy enough, just cut the stuff into fine strips and stick them into a 3% brine solution for three weeks. Unfortunately, this does tend to stink a bit at first, so maybe I'll carry on buying choucroute crue at the supermarket.)

Weaker spirits might have quailed, but I ran through the mental rolodex of everyone I know that likes the stuff, and Stacey's number came up. She was more than willing so I trotted back home, stopping off to pick up a kilo of choucroute, unloaded the car and decided to spare fifteen minutes for some quality time with the beasts.

Which turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because when I opened my eyes I was stiff, the cat was weighing on my chest, the dog snoring loudly on my feet and it was five o'clock.

Doing a decent choucroute garnie starting with choucroute crue takes at least three hours. Start with your kilo of choucroute and squeeze it to get as much of the liquid out as you can, and mix it up with some juniper berries. Then line the bottom of a large - as in five-litre or so - casserole with strips of bacon and stick half the cabbage on top of that. 

After that add 500gm of smoked pork shoulder, in one lump please, and 500gm of smoked pork sausages, and an onion, cut in half and studded with cloves. Add the rest of the cabbage, and a bottle of white wine: let boil until the alcohol has evaporated off, cover and simmer for two and a half hours in the oven or on the stovetop. Either's good: as we have the old wood-burner going I tend to use that.

At the end of that time, add as many halved potatoes as you feel like, and eight or ten decent frankfurters: just put them on top of the seething mess, cover and let simmer again for forty minutes more so that they cook in the steam.

At the end of this time you should have enough choucroute for at least four people: fish out the pork shoulder, slice it (makes serving so much easier) and put it back in the casserole, and start in on it. If you ask me there is very little point to serving anything else with this, certainly not a salad: some people, can't think why, will insist on putting mustard on it. I would not recommend that personally, but feel free if you must.

So there we were, just the two of us with this enormous steaming mass in front of us - we made a pretty bloody good effort but Margo will definitely get her share when she comes back: even after leaving a pile with Stacey there was still enough for four.

But she won't be quite as lucky with the galette des Rois, sad to say: what we didn't eat disappeared at breakfast, at least my bit did.

Anyway, it's a grey and dismal Sunday afternoon and I am totally uninspired ... time for another coffee, then I suppose I ought to get a bit of work done. Enjoy your summer, people.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Flogging a Dead Horse ...

Gray and dismal on Thursday, just the right sort of weather for an early start and a trip to the arse end of Switzerland. Why go to Monthey, you may well ask - simply enough, and not even obscene, it was to set up the supervision software for the security installation at a chemical plant there. It's quite a major site, with 6 km of perimeter to be secured, so Bruno (my client, Sorhea, you may remember) thought it worthwhile to turn up armed for bear.

First thing, once we'd gone through getting ID badges and frisked and having body cavities inspected and such-like, was to spot that the PC on which it was to be installed was XP SP2 running IE6, which seemed a bit outdated. I suggested that perhaps it should be updated, a suggestion that was, sad to say, acted on: for having downloaded the IE8 package and a few prerequisites, the poor machine went into an endless reboot cycle. So one of the security guys headed off to Lausanne to get another one, and we decided that perhaps it would be a Good Time to have lunch.

Which turned out to be dead horse, but I can handle that. In fact, once you get over the idea that you're eating little Flicka the pony, it's not bad. Tastes, in fact, like a good steak, which is probably just as well because if it tasted like a bad one there'd be no point to it, now would there?

Whatever, once the new PC arrived things went more or less swimmingly, apart from a few hardware problems with the security gear that Bruno had to go off and look at whilst I twiddled my thumbs, and we managed to leave the dump around 20:30. Which was, I admit, rather later than I'd planned on, but what the hell.

It also turns out that the Swiss must be big fans of Doctor Who, because as I was looking over the plan of the site I couldn't help but notice that there was a big swathe of bog marked as "Les Tardis". Go figure.

Once again I've been abandoned; bloody Beckham's off lunching in Aix, and Bryan's doing politics in Lyon. Which meant, as I had half an hour to kill before going off to see about Stacey's computer problems, a glass at Modesto and then another at l'Arbre à Bières (yes, I do like to spread my favours around liberally).

I actually spent rather more time at l'Arbre à Bières than I'd sort of planned on, 'cos when I walked in, unhooked the camera from my shoulder and plunked it on the bar the only guy in there was in fact the cook, who turned out to be an amateur photographer himself. So after a bit of discussion on the relative merits of verious DSLRs he obviously noticed that I have a bit of an accent, asked me where I was from, and then I got the full interrogation about what New Zealanders eat.

In all honesty, I do not know anymore. What do you buggers eat these days?

Anyway, although we've always felt welcome in the place, I suspect that we have become friends. Always nice, not that I've ever felt the need to complain about the service, and they've always been able to seat us somewhere.

For some strange reason the market was relatively quiet, I wasn't in a rush, and even the old hags with their scythed shopping trolleys didn't give me too much aggro, so when I did finally turn up at Stacey's I was feeling relatively human, hardly wanted to kill anyone. For once.

Although it might not have taken much to bring me to the tipping point (suppressed rage, don'cha know) so it was probably just as well that I happened to have some diots in the car just waiting to be cooked - which is what happened to them. Onions, red wine, carrots and pig, with garlicky mashed potatoes on the side: sublime.

After that, home and time to do my manly duties, namely the Cleaning of the Chimney. It was indeed about time, for the pipes turned out to be as tight as a cat's arse, full of soot and tar, and cleaning that lot out occupied me for some time.

And then, of course, it was off to see Pierre and Arlette for dinner, which started, auspiciously enough, with whisky before moving on to a frikking ginormous couscous (and as a pied-noir, Arlette knows how to do a decent one) and a baba au rhum and little cinnamon biscuits: I vaguely remember falling into bed sometime around 3:30. I suppose we must have had a good time.

Sadly, later that same day we had to get Jeremy off to his stage. I was still feebly whimpering in bed, so it fell to Margo to do the deed: she'd checked up on weather conditions, decided she really didn't want to head up to Briançon under the circumstances if she could possibly avoid it, and dropped him off at the gare routière at Grenoble to take the bus.

Which he managed to catch with about ten seconds to spare, which is fine. On the other hand, when he did eventually turn up at Briançon it turned out that he'd got off at the stop after the one he should have got off at (because he hadn't really bothered, being a Jeremy, to check on details) but that was alright because once Margo texted him the full address he just hitched down (godnose how he managed that).

So he's wound up in a small family-owned hotel of ten rooms or so; mornings spent preparing for lunch or dinner, he can borrow skis should he feel that way inclined (yes!) and the owner has suggested taking him off for a days skiing in the weekend.

On top of that the Wifi works, so he can squat in his room and do whatever it is that he does with the Internet.

So long as the owner does not have a too ill-favoured 17 year-old daughter, I can see this all ending happily.

I can see that the weekly round-up of search terms is going to become a tradition. So far, we have

   bent over spanking
   missing a shot of methamphetamine in my neck
   white things on my penis

For some reason, no-one comes here looking for tentacle hentai  porn which is, all things considered, probably just as well. This is, after all, supposed to be family-friendly. Provided, of course, that

    (family == Addams)

evaluates to TRUE, which may not be the case for everyone. Can't all be lucky.

So anyway, it's late, I'm tired and looking at heading to bed with a small pile of biscuits and a glass of wine (just to keep the biscuits company, you understand): catch you later, people.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cooking For Two ...

Having nothing better to do as the pork roast, slathered with a purée of crushed garlic, fresh rosemary, gros sel, paprika and olive oil, slowly roasted in a terrine with white wine and chopped tomatoes, I went looking for dessert and wound up, as I often do, here. It may just be a genoise batter poured over chopped apples, but you really do need to make it. Would I lie to you?

Although, being an inveterate (as distinct from invertebrate) fiddler, I did stick 3 or 4 tbsp of powdered almonds in the batter. And next time, I would perhaps dial back the sugar a bit. Maybe put a bit of lemon oil in there too. And I think there will indeed be a next time. But even in its raw state, no-one's complaining. In fact the whole meal was eaten more or less in silence, which around here means that it's been judged acceptable, or at least fit for approximately human consumption.

(We eat first, and then follows the critique raisonné. Unless it's unspeakable, at which point the critique starts with the first mouthful, rapidly becomes deraisonnable and continues for the length of the meal, until eventually I have to go out to the kitchen and commit seppuku. Fortunately, this is a rare event.)

From the faits divers column in one of the local online rags, a sad story from last weekend: in an underground carpark in Montmélian (the only underground carpark there, we know where he was) some chap let his wallet fall on Saturday night and it slipped through the grating on the stormwater drain. Having no fear, and apparently less brain, he removed the grating and was groping around for the offending article when he slipped and slid headfirst down the 1.5m hole, where he remained stuck.

Luckily for him, as Margo remarked, he was rather more than 1.5m in height, for the next morning someone coming in to pick up their car noticed the feet coming out of the floor and, as one will under such circumstances - especially when the feet in question are moving feebly and thus stand a fair chance of being attached to something living - called the emergency services, who managed to drag the poor guy out, suffering a bit from hypothermia which might well, as it happens, turn out to be the least of his worries.

For the story does not end there: the cops came along as well and, poking their noses into the circumstances of the little drame, discovered (stuck in the sewer, he'd been unable to tidy away the evidence) that he'd actually been siphoning used oil from his car down the stormwater system. An offense punishable by a maximum of two years en taule and a swingeing fine of 75 000 euros. Still, as I always say, you have to laugh, don't you?

More search terms for your entertainment (and also, on the principle that positive reinforcement must have something going for it, trying to get the page hits up - I mean, if they're looking for it, they're going to come back if I give them more, aren't they?):

   bottle blonde girl
   sophie leper lyon
   vegetables raping our women

and the curiously poignant (albeit incomprehensible, unless totally stoned perhaps)

   So Sue, what do you think beyond all gold curtain hope is better in fruit bowl of cherries, yes

I'm not sure what to think about all that.

Whatever, I've got the menu for Saturday. Sophie was quite reasonable - for her: her only exigence was the coquilles St-Jacques as an entrée, and that the main course be fish, accompanied by - of course - a salad. Otherwise, my choice. So after a bit of thinking and digging around in the books, it's going to be

Coquilles St-Jacques à la nage - sauce au vin blanc et crème

Coulibiac, beurre blanc à la badiane
Salade Sophie - douceurs du miel, pimenté au malice


To do a proper coulibiac you really need to have a supply of vesiga, this being the dried spinal marrow of sturgeons: my greengrocer does not stock this (nor, as it happens, do they have dried tiger penis or bears' paws, which kind of scrubs another couple of classic dishes from my répertoire, shit happens, what more can I say) so it won't be 100% authentic but what the hell. And I suppose the sturgeons will be happy. Those of them that haven't had their guts slit open to remove the eggs, anyway. Or their backbones whipped out, just to get at the marrow.

But in these degenerate times we're happy to take a bit of fluffy steamed rice, mix it with some finely chopped, wilted shallots and chopped dill, sandwich the lot with a couple of sliced hard-boiled eggs between two slabs of salmon and then wrap the whole damn thing in some puff pastry and brush it with an egg wash before sticking it in the oven for twenty minutes.

You will of course make a couple of holes in the top of the pastry (do remember to decorate them nicely) for the steam to escape and after ten minutes cooking you could usefully pour a bit of cream in there. And do not cook it too long, fish should always be pink and soft, not grey, sad and dry.

And just so that you don't have to go digging around in the older posts, the beurre blanc recipe is simplicity itself: stew a chopped shallot in butter till soft, add a peeled chopped apple, two star anis and two or three glasses of white wine. Let that simmer gently for twenty minutes or so, then strain through a small sieve (note to self: Sophie doesn't have one of those, take mine) pressing down on the apple and shallot to extract a maximum of juice. Reduce the liquid, add cream and bring to the boil to thicken, then off the heat whisk in 20 or 30 gm of butter.

As for dessert (the recipe is in the link above, I did tell you to go check it out), the only "improvement" I have in mind is to mash up some Philly cream cheese (or mascarpone, if that's all I can find) with chopped dried apricots, then slather that over the top once it's cooled down a bit and sprinkle it with cinnamon. I really cannot just leave well enough alone. Mind you, if that's my only personality defect I should not complain.

So off to the market as usual: gray, dismal, and as you can see, chilly. There is a tendency here to emblazon shopping bags with rather meaningless semi-English phrases (I mean, "Fragrance of Woman"?) and one that puzzled me a bit as I sipped at the second glass (drinking alone, sad to say, the other two alcoholics having hard-heartedly abandoned me to my own devices, and gone off to Grenoble): "24/10/2011 Save the Date". I honestly didn't know they were an endangered fruit; you learn something new every day.

Didn't actually have too much time to ponder that: had to go off and cook. I'd been very organised and everything: even made a little list of everything I thought I'd need, packed up the implements I knew Sophie doesn't have, took a decent chopping board and noted down a reasonable prep order. Which, on starting, I promptly proceeded to ignore, which is about par for the course.

Poor Lucas was just leaving for an afternoon's ski du fond as I arrived: he contented himself with a few pointed remarks to the effect that he was sure to be famished on his return, and that it would make a nice change if, once in a while, people would think of others, such as himself, and make sure there were leftovers. And as there were just the two of us, he turned out to be in luck. No scallops - those, and their sauce, disappeared in short order - but we didn't quite manage to eat all the coulibiac, and although we tried we didn't make much of a dent in the dessert either.

Whatever, it was indeed une tueurie, as she says, and good practice for me too: been a while since I had to plan a menu, organise and prepare a decent three-course meal - and been able to sit down and eat it afterwards - and as Stacey is supposed to be organising one for me soon, with Jean Lain and other notables de la bourgeoisie Chambérienne, I really should get back into it.

Like I said, you do learn something new every day (the French expression, incidentally, is - literally translated - to go to bed slightly less stupid than when you woke up) and I learnt, quite by accident (and I cannot for the life of me remember how the subject came up) that Sophie loves a good choucroute. As do I, and as does Margo: sadly for her, we've organised that for more or less all day on the 28th, when she's away at a salon. I suppose I should save some of the leftovers.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We Don't Want Your Steenking 2012 ...

Dumpster-diving must be pretty unrewarding around this time of year, I imagine. If the big containers up at the top of the road here are anything to go by, their contents are running at about 90% empty chocolate boxes, with the rest being an equal mix of picked-clean turkey carcasses and oyster shells.

Our New Year was kind of quiet: drove the yoof up to Geneva to catch their flight back to Glasgow: of course, by preparing for the worst (autoroute clogged with bloody holiday-makers, and snow) no such thing eventuated, and we arrived early, around 12:30. Missed some quality drinking time, there. Their flight was still marked as being on time, but the preceding one, that should have left at 11:50, was up as being expected around 14:30 ... I assume they got back eventually, will doubtless find out some time.

Margo dropped Jerry off for a party, and I stopped off on the way back for a few rounds with Beckham and Bryan - oh the shame, for the first time in my life I have been kicked out of a bar! Not, I hasten to add, for drunk & disorderly, but simply because Pierre decided he wanted to close early, like around 15:30, and ejected everyone manu miltari.

So we staggered off to somewhere more congenial, like the Café de Paris, and as we sat nursing our restoratives who should stagger up to the bar but the odious little morsel himself. Still, he paid our round of drinks, which was rather unexpected. (Still didn't make up for poor Bryan's heartbreak on seeing Alison, the hot waitress, with her arms draped around him. Doubtless fishing for his wallet.)

And finally, home for a decent meal and a mug of hot chocolate before snuggling into bed to the damp-squib sound of soggy sky-rockets going off (did I mention it was raining heavily?).

Jeremy has moved back in with us, and I must admit that we're already counting the days until he heads off on his next stage. Not that he's unpleasant company or anything - surprisingly human in fact, when I look at what some other people have to put up with - but my god does he stick the food away. Having no great inspiration I made lasagna the other night - enough for six or eight normal people. And Jerry wasn't hungry ... until the munchies set in at midnight, and the rest disappeared with him to school for his lunch. I had rather been counting on leftovers, seems that's a thing of the past.

Dawned gray, overcast and - the first time this winter that I've really felt it - cold today (is half-heartedly trying to snow as I write, small ploppy flakes falling sullenly), but I is made of sterner stuff and anyway, we needed more potatoes at the very least, not to mention wine.

So it was off to the market, and I'm pleased to note that I'm starting to find my way around again. Rediscovered the cheese-monger, and managed to find a second source for my preferred rougette lettuce (just as well as I have not yet found the first source, I know they're there somewhere, but well-hidden).

I said that they'd severely reduced the floor space for the indoor market: this has one unfortunate side-effect (amongst others, but let's not go there) which is that the old hags with their shopping bags trundling approximatively behind them can even more effectively block the traffic. And to be honest, it's not just the old hags. More and more young folk (OK, we're talking 30's, 40's here) seem to be taking to the diabolical things too, and not only do I have to be athletic and all pointy-elbowed in the market, but on the footpaths around as well.

I mean, here I am with a bag of 10kg of meat, fruit, vegetables and dope in each hand, trying to get back to the car as expeditiously as possible and thus striding along at a great rate of knots, and then you get the Young Family ahead of you. The Father with Pram, the Mother with The Shopping Trolley trailing erratically off to one side, and the Small Daughter who is apparently practising an elliptical orbit that would have gladdened Ptolemy's heart.

The road side is of course blocked with double-parked Porsches - not much to do there apart from scratch a key down the side - so your choice is to wait for them to realise that they're in the way (bonus points if you have an air horn in your pocket, or maybe a small airgun), or barge straight through.

Though this may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as a patient man, I'm not inclined to hang around till Doomsday so I usually go for the bulldozer option: this does sometimes occasion collateral damage, usually the Orbiting Child. And a few muttered harsh words rapidly disappearing behind, along the lines of "Well! Did you see how rude that man was! Come here Chloë, I'm sure it's only a flesh wound. No, he wouldn't have rabies."

Such are the delights of the marché. So you can see why I so appreciate the simple pleasures of a little apéro afterwards, if only to get my blood pressure down. Which is why Bryan and I (Beckham being apparently indisposed) found ourselves at Le Petit Bar du Marché, previously known as Le Bar Sans Nom, formerly known as Chez Liddy. (They've definitely gone downhill in the name department. But it remains cheap, warm, and welcoming: everything you want in a bar on a cold January day.)

They've no literary pretensions but there is a shelf of books along one wall, above the heaters: mostly French authors from the 50's but tucked in just beside "The Male Nude" (yes, with photos) there's a 5-cm thick (and apparently much-used, for the spine has split and it's now in two parts) work entitled "Dictionnaire des Mots de Sexe" which, after inspection, turns out to be a rather exhaustive work on the subject. With a very impressive bibliography.

The word ruelle, for instance - which would mean "little street" - actually derives from the space between the master bed and the wall of the room: would have been the warmest spot in the place and was reserved for intimates. Only later, it seems, did it take on its sexual connotations. Which I will leave you to imagine.

It's a good way to pass an idle half-hour or so, even if Bryan did look rather embarrassed.

Sophie is off for the weekend in Paris - at last notice, wandering like a lovestruck mooncalf through the musée d'Orsay. I have to admit that if there were only one museum I could visit in Paris (that would be for reasons of time, not because I've been banned from the Louvre for sticking chewing-gum on the Mona Lisa's titties) it would be that one.

Although there is, somewhere - just have to dig out the trusty old Taride - an honest-to-god museum of erotica, and another which apparently has a fascinating and rather encyclopedic collection of wine corks. One day, when I have the time ...

Rodin may not be your thing, but let's face it, he wasn't limited to sculptures of fat guys with haemorroids: one of the pieces I vaguely remember up on one wall - I think it was supposed to represent the gates of Hell, but I could well be wrong and can't be arsed googling it - was pretty damn impressive. And the Art Nouveau rooms are magnificent. As is the old dining room from back in the Belle Epoque, when the place was a train station - worth going there just for that, in my opinion. So if you're ever around ...

Whatever, she's just gently reminded me that I still owe her one Xmas present, and sooner rather than later - like next weekend - so I'd better go and start brushing up those menus.