Sunday, May 26, 2013

Skynet? Leave it to Beaver ...

Early Buck Rogers-style  jetpacks were not a
commercial success
So today being the Sunday just before the lundi de Pentecôte (yet another public holiday, yay!) it is the day of the grande brocante here in St Pierre, and as has become traditional in the past few years the day did not so much dawn as stagger blearily into existence, accompanied by much rheumy gagging and a sullen, cold rain. It has cleared up a bit now - just enough to let me see that there's fresh snow up on the Arclusaz behind us.

Actually, I could have done without that. Of course, lulled into a false sense of security by a few consecutive days of good weather, we turned off the central heating a couple of weeks back, so now with the outside temperatures reaching a high of maybe 10° we is sitting inside huddled in blankets, crouched around a guttering candle to keep us warm. I exaggerate a bit, I admit, but I did go light the fire in the kitchen.

I had, in a vague way, thought that perhaps we'd be out having a barbecue about now, gnawing on undefinable bits of charred blackened meat (sometimes I get a bit over-enthusiastic with the accelerant) and swigging gallons of rosé to wash it down, but I can see that those plans are going to be put on hold for a few weeks. With any luck we'll be able to have at least one before we leave the place, invite all the friends and neighbours around and get them to pick through our stuff before we confide it to the movers, but even that looks kind of doubtful just at the moment.

On an unrelated matter, for some time now I have been kind of perplexed at where the traffic for this blog comes from. Most of it comes from our country cousins across the pond, then there's NZ and France more or less tied for second place: the UK and Russia (mostly coming from a site apparently dedicated to the Citroen C3, which is a bit weird but why not?) complete the top five. But over the past week, most hits come from India. WTF? So then I looked at the referring sites, and could not help but notice this one:

I suppose that's pretty clear: caveat emptor and all that, I have not gone there nor do I suggest that you do so unless you have locked your browser down tighter than a cat's arsehole. Just saying, and if you do go check it out, don't blame me if you catch something nasty.

Also, may I just say how incredibly pleased I am that Jeremy was never interested in a career in IT? Although I'm sure he'd be good at it, in a niche way, as a saboteur perhaps. Just put him in a computer room for half an hour, and after a short while all the machines there would start to fail. Subtly, and mysteriously.

So he's had a couple of power supplies blow up, or just fade away from exhaustion, a machine that quite inexplicably one day gave up the ghost, a laptop that got stolen (probably trying to get away from him): not so long ago I lent him one of my old work machines, it was hardly a favourite and certainly no racehorse but it chugged along quite reliably until, a while back, he started losing the internet.

And as I had a few hours to spare this afternoon, I thought I might as well look into it. I have to admit to being perplexed. I don't know how he did it, come to that I don't even know exactly what he's done. First suspect is the cables and then, maybe, the Homeplug box that gets him ethernet over the power lines, then maybe something gross that he's downloaded ...

Being a methodical man, I checked first of all that the cables and connections were OK by the simple expedient of using them with my laptop: all OK. I suspected a virus, or somesuch, but the machine is a dual-boot setup with W2K and XP, he's only ever booted under W2K and just to make sure I tried booting off Linux from a USB key ... did that help? Did it hell.

What appears to happen is that the machine starts up all happy and nice, gets its IP address and everything, and then after about three minutes it is no longer capable of finding websites. Packets go out, packets come in, but address resolution does not work. Can't even find the router, should I type in the IP address (, like everyone else) directly. Under XP I can "repair" the connection, which incidentally clears the ARP buffers and hooks up again with the DNS server, and it will work again, for three minutes: under W2K I can just disable and then reenable the connection: same thing.

When I have a day or two I shall maybe plug the thing behind a dumb switch and look at the network traces with Wireshark, but what seems to me to be happening is that after a short while, ARP seems to be failing: maybe the packets don't get sent out. Don't know, hence the need for Wireshark. Running on a different machine, so that I can see what is on the line.

Is a puzzlement. Not a puzzle I really need to resolve, but it's annoying. I just cannot for the life of me see how a network adapter can fail in such a manner, it's not even heat-related because I don't have to power the machine off to get it to work again, just reset the adapter. It being a tower I guess I could just try to find a PCI Ethernet card and stick it in, but those are getting to be pretty rare birds these days, as are USB WiFi dongles. (I used to have three or four of those suckers, no idea what's happened to them over the years. Probably off performing monstrous hybrid couplings with the dust bunnies in the darker recesses of my office, I guess.)

Whatever, what I suppose I'm really trying to say is that you should never, ever, lend Jeremy a computer. Even if it is just to help him out. He, and they, just do not seem to get on.

Still, I suppose that his existence, and that of others like him, just goes to show that we have nothing to fear from the vaunted Rise of the Machines. They will collapse into cybernetic catatonia.

Anyway, more or less as Méteo France promised, we are having a lousy week. Intermittent rain, cold gray skies, and the high temperatures only just scrape in to the double digits. It would be nice if it at least cleared up for the weekend, given that Margo's taking the car up to Alsace or somewhere this weekend, but I am - as the French say, dubitatif. Guess I'll be trudging around the market, the bag even heavier than usual because I really need to buy another few kilos of spuds on top of the usual suspects, in the rain.

You know, sometimes I worry that I obsess a bit too much about food. Hope springing eternal, as it will, I'd picked up some blettes (OK, call it silverbeet if you like, but not blattes) at the market with absolutely no idea what to do with the damn things. And then, late one night ... luckily I wasn't in the bath, for the results would have been disastrous for those on the lower floors, a thought came to me.

And the next day, serendipitously crossing the path of a packet of lamb mince at the supermarket, I coveted it and, as one will, went and bought it. At which point things became quite simple. Breadcrumbs, cream, salt, an egg yolk and lotsa chopped mint mixed up with the lamb and then the beaten egg white folded gently in, and the whole mess spooned on top of the blettes (which I had had the foresight to half cook beforehand so that they were nicely limp - thank god for microwaves) and then wrapped into neat little packets before going into the frying pan to meet their maker, with a bit (well, quite a lot really) of white wine, chopped tomato and garlic to see them on their way.

Sad to say, it was indeed raining - nay, positively pissing down - when I left this morning to head off to the market. And as luck would have it I had to stop off at Montmelian to go into the bank which meant that having decanted myself from the train at some appalling hour and transacted my business, I had an hour to waste before the next train through to Chambéry. And my mood was not improved on the train when it did arrive to discover that two seats ahead of me there was a bulging young muffin-top with her headphones blaring out a muffled bass beat just loud enough to keep me awake.

One day, I swear, I am going to lose it, go over and point at the little signs all over the place which say, in an encouraging way, that phones and MP3 players should be kept DISCREET! for god's sake, rip the things off and trample them underfoot, like young lions and serpents.

Be that as it may, couldn't help but notice, as I did the rounds, that there were rather fewer stall-holders out than usual: nothing to sell, I suppose, what with all the fruit being late anyway and most of what there is having rotted on the vine, or contracted leprosy, or whatever. At least there are Spanish strawberries, which pleases me, even if the average Frog-thing, in that loveable pig-headed chauvinistic way of theirs, would rather slit their own throats with barbed wire rather than eat them. Even if they don't have the chutzpah to attest that they have no flavour (as though the industrial French ones, raised on dehydrated pig-shit, tasted of something other than sticky water with a slight arrière-gout of crap) they will fall back on the assertion that they're as full of steroids as Lance Armstrong, and consequently unsafe for human consumption.

It is often said - usually by those lucky enough to live somewhere that actually has a climate - that the English have only one topic of conversation between themselves, although they will occasionally make an effort for foreigners and make polite enquiries as to the health of the family. This may or may not be true, I've not really spent enough time around the English to be able to constate on the matter, but I can affirm that it's certainly true of the French.

Start talking with a Frenchman these days, and within five seconds the talk will turn ineluctably to the weather, how gross it's been, how foul it is, and how absolutely disgusting it is likely to be for the foreseeable future. I have not yet dared to mention this in polite society, for I'm afraid that the implicit comparison would be unappreciated, but if I have to suffer through one more conversation in which I learn, for the Nth time, that a) it was better before and b) it's all the fault of the bloody Socialists, or the Greens, or whatever the pet hate of the day is, I will do so.

And I'm afraid that I really did not want to hang about any longer than strictly necessary, so I missed the festival du 1er Roman, where Beckham was set to claim her fifteen minutes of fame with a public reading of excerpts from her magnum opus. Shame really.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Per Ardua Cadastre ...

... It's bloody hard work, surveying.

First of all you have to set this bloody concrete monolith, with some sort of plastic Eye'o'Sauron/reflective pyramid thingy on top, into granite and locate that using GPS, or magic, or something, and then you have to hike around a lake and take sightings of it from different angles, apparently so that you know where the rest of the lake is, and can write that down on a bit of paper with billions of squiggly lines in red and black.

Now normal people would not find that too difficult, it's the wet stuff that one of your brand-new Nikes has just stepped in. Also, there are baboons jumping into it, for a swim. Or maybe a fight. Or a bite. (More likely, knowing baboons. Nasty foul-tempered sods.) But NO CROCODILES, for they are not friendly campers.

At least, that's what it looked like to me, back in the day in darkest Africa. It was quite a long hike, much of it just up and down, on land where you could sell both sides of the same acre. And it's not as though anyone actually cared. Least of all the lake itself.

Or maybe I just got the spelling wrong, and it should have been "Per Ardua, Cadavre". Which, under certain circumstances, could make more sense. Hard work will kill me.

Sorry, don't know what brought that on. I thought I'd try the first bagel recipe I came across, given that David Lebovitz has nothing to say on the subject, and I have to admit to some doubt when I came up with something with absolutely no fat in it. No butter, no oil, no milk: just unadulterated flour, salt, water and yeast. (OK, a bit of sugar to encourage the yeast to do its thing and go forth and multiply, but that hardly counts.)

Speaking of which, when first we turned up in this benighted Yurrupian country one of the things that perplexed us was the number of flours on display on the supermarket shelves, each labelled prominently as T50, T55, T60 ... I think you get the picture here. As, back in NZ, you were happy if the flour in the packet turned out to be what it said, had few weasels weevils in it, and were totally unconcerned about its gluten content, this confused us.

And even not so long ago, you could go in and find farine, and farine spéciale pour gateaûx, so you knew more or less where you stood, provided cake-making was on your agenda. But I had the occasion the other day to go off and get some flour, along with the rest of the groceries, and Margo had helpfully noted "wholemeal" and "strong" on the shopping list.

OK, wholemeal wasn't that difficult - I hope, I bought some farine complète and I guess that'll do the job - but for strong flour ... I wound up buying some farine pour pain maison, after carefully reading the label to make sure that there was nothing in it but flour, but it was not easy to find. All those handy labels seem to have disappeared, rendered useless and obsolete by the disappearance of home cooking. Although there were handy instructions as per its use in a bread machine, which I suppose speaks volumes.

Because I, for one, will not use them. Bread machines, that is. I actually like the otherwise pointless ten minutes spent kneading, the rather erotic (to me, anyway, which also says something) feel of the dough under my palms, and the satisfaction as it starts to turn out silky and elastic in my hands. On a good day, anyway.

Still, maybe by pure luck, it turned out well. With 250gm of flour, yeast and sugar dissolved in 200ml of warm water, the whole lot mixed up with a wooden spoon and then kneaded vigorously: definitely made a nice dough. Maybe I should change my flour-buying habits. Into the microwave with it for a minute at 100W to warm it up and encourage it thusly to rise, before knocking back and making it into eight doughnuts.

The fun part, of course, is poaching the little buggers. Actually, the fun part is trying to prise them off the greaseproof paper without them becoming some sort of deformed pretzel before dropping them into the simmering water, and there's also the fun to be had trying to persuade the sods to turn over, using only a slotted spoon and an electric cattle-prod.

I knew vaguely that bagels were supposed to have stuff on top, so I left a couple nature for Margo and brushed the rest with milk before liberally sprinkling them with sea salt, poppy seeds, nigella (well, it says "Best Finest Black Cumin Seed" on the packet, but I'm not convinced that the shop in Nepal was too concerned about actual veracity, what with poetry being beauty and beauty, truth ... whatever) and whilst I was at it, some anis. Because I do not seem to have any caraway. Or maybe I do, but it was hiding at that time.

Still turned out delicious mind you, after twenty minutes in the oven. Chewy outside and a firm dense crumb inside, they were fine for my lunch today, with a bit of cheese and whatever. No need even to toast them.

(Note to self - did have a stash of caraway. It was lurking in a jam jar in one of the spice cupboards, and has since been consigned to the footnotes of history or, in this particular case, the dustbin of the household, as I must have bought it about 18 years ago and after all this time it smelt of nothing more than old paperbacks, more particularly an abandoned John Grisham legal potboiler with wooden dialogue and really cringe-inciting sex scenes. A mercy killing, really.)

Completely unrelated, but as I was walking around the market the other day I noticed this flappy noise, eventually realised that I was the one responsible, and then looked in surprise as the sole of my left shoe went flying off into the distance. Christ, I only bought the damn things in '96, whatever happened to quality and workmanship? Or am I being unreasonable here, expecting my clothes to last me a lifetime?

And speaking of flappy noises, there was music being practiced - and I use the word advisedly - this morning. Not that I would personally care to call the piano-accordion an instrument - not of a musical nature at any rate - but this guy was there, squeezing away at the dismal box and singing quaint old French songs (think "As I were a-tupping a maid that day", you get the idea) as though his life depended on it. For all I know, it did. Maybe he'd been hired by disgruntled stall-holders to go play in front of a too-successful competitor; maybe, despite the evidence, he actually enjoys the break from the screedlehorn and belchpipe. Whatever, my visit to that particular area was rather brief.

I mean, I will do a lot of things, some even without being paid, although that does rather go against my principles, but I can see no earthly reason why I should listen to that sort of stuff. Unless, of course, I am indeed paid, and as it happened there seemed to be a dearth of benign idiots with bulging wallets in the neighbourhood. And as I didn't really want to buy mushrooms anyway, it was no great hardship.

On a brighter note, I did manage to find some more asparagus, which will go rather nicely with our pavés de saumon tonight, and the nectarines are getting to the point where they are both affordable and edible. Should ever we see some sun in these gloomy lands at some point we will have a glut of the little suckers, which will mean a number of bavarois au fromage frais et fruits de saison which will please Jeremy no end, for he particularly likes that as a dessert, but right at this here point in time that seems rather far off.

The week has been busy - although luckily Fabrice, my other petit suisse, has headed off on holiday so that's three hours a day I won't be spending on the phone (and just what the hell do they think you're doing all that time? Being productive? You know, I think they probably do.) - mostly running around seeing banks to see if they will lend us relatively small amounts of money, Margo getting quotes from movers and stuff like that. For it is true that, just looking at the accumulated things we have here does rather strike fear into the heart when contemplating shifting it all.

At least Jeremy should be alright, his dossier for the OPAC is complete and, I hope, handed in, so with any luck he'll very soon be living it up in a taxpayer-subsidised cheap apartment, and no longer Our Problem. Also, should he ring to ask "Hey! Can I come down to see you with girlfriend (meuf, not a particularly nice word) number X" we will be able to reply, with straight faces, "sorry sunshine, booked out, no room at the inn". Well, that would be nice, anyway.

Before I leave you, may I just point out that these have been naughty little cherubs? Not only are they playing Silly Buggers with the Congenitally Deformed Seagull of Happiness, but they have taken all their clothes off and seem to have painted themselves with really cheap woad, which is not the right colour and has already started to run in spots. Also, they're kind of obese, which I would put down to bad diet.

Only the fact that they appear to be sitting on the Perpetual Toilet Paper Fountain has preserved their modesty, and if you ask me when Venus gets home from the nightclub with whatever seedy demi-god she's managed to pick up (shame about her looks these days, she used to be really hot but 2000 years does rather take it out of you) there will be Words Said, and the odd fessée or two. Well-deserved, in my opinion. Cheeky little sods.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Waking Up With Karim ...

Gross Statuary, n° 5 ...
... is all in a day's work, for neither rain, snow, hail, nor plagues of frogs, nor purulent boils, will stop these ministers from their appointed rounds ... still, I was kind of disappointed. Yes, I'd told Karim - my petit suisse -  that I would be more or less available that day, but I had rather forgotten that the Swiss, having hidden behind gold ingots for five years, do not celebrate Armistice 1945, and I was grumpy when the phone cheerily exterminated beside me at 8am and dragged me from my blameless slumber. (Also, I was looking forward to going up to the village and throwing stones at the fanfare municipal as they tootled in their trombones, and wanted to be rested for the occasion.)

For lo! there was indeed a problem, the stuff needed to be shipped out that very day: you see, of course, where this is going. So instead of snoring blissfully for a few more hours, I was up and in front of the computer until 14:00, trying to work out just what was going on. Not at all what I had had in mind.

... and n° 6. Collect the entire set!
Whatever, we managed to get it out the door on time, and as I was well and truly awake by then I thought I might as well drag the camera out and go for a bit of a wander. Of course the weather is variable (as I write it is pissing down vertically, which is probably an improvement, and kind of cool out) so I garbèd myself in jeans and the usual black polo-neck ...

That was probably a mistake, for as I climbed up above the Chateau des Allues and wandered along the little tracks and smelled that wonderful smell of hay baking in the sun, I couldn't but notice that that same baking sun was doing a pretty good job on me. I sweat like a pig anyway at the slightest provocation, and what with its being the first decent walk of the year and me thus a bit out of shape, I swear I lost three litres of - um, liquid - on that little jaunt: rest assured that on arriving back home I lost no time in replacing it.

Like I said, I made that strawberry coulis and I thought I'd better do something with it, and the best idea I could come up with was to make some chocolate soufflé batter (three eggs, separated, the yolks beaten with 150 gm of sugar, and 200 gm of decent dark chocolate melted with a bit of cream) and then stick some of the strawberries on the bottom of a silicone cake mould, pour half the batter on top, then put it in the oven to bake for a bit.

After ten minutes, when the top was firm, I took it out, spread more strawberries over that and then filled the mould with the rest of the soufflé stuff and put it back in the oven, whilst the baked potatoes cooked. And then, as we sat down to our lamb chops and trimmings, I turned the oven off and forgot about it for a bit.

Soufflés do fall, it's kind of in the nature of the beast, but it unmoulded rather nicely: sad to say, I seem to have produced version 2.00 of the chocolate-strawberry cowpat cake that I once made, to much critical acclaim, for Sophie. No-one will ever like it for its looks - probably just as well - but the taste is sublime. If, of course, you like chocolate, and strawberries.

I have since wondered what to do about the delivery aspects ie how can I make it look less ugly, toyed with the idea of baking it in a pastry shell but then it'd just be a banal chocolate pie, so maybe it's destined just to be cooked and served in ramequins. Or, for kids, as a cowpat, just the way it comes.

Some people seem to think that a week is a long time between reading a recipe and putting it into action: cower, mere mortals, for the longest gestation period I have ever had is 27 years. In the way-back-when, at a time when I thought that "disposable income" meant stuffing dollar bills down the toilet (something Larry Ellison still does if rumour can be believed, but it would seem it's mainly to wash the coke off), I strode purposefully out the door one day, only to return with La Technique and La Méthode, by the estimable Jacques Pépin. Who was, apart from being a great chef in his own right, also a close friend of the late and much-lamented Julia Child.

The epitome of French "good taste"
Only incidentally cookbooks, their purpose was, like it says on the tin, to teach the techniques and methods of cookery, and they did a pretty damn good job. Hell, they certainly helped turn me into a cook. The photographs were, as they say, "of the era", not designed to make the food look pretty (not an easy thing to do anyway with a pile of squishy kidneys and assorted lungs'n'lights) but to illustrate what was going on: they may also explain why a generation of would-be cooks grew up thinking that the natural colour of meat - of almost anything, really - was gray. Could also explain a certain period in the history of English cuisine, about that time when the guy that invented gray food colouring became filthy rich. But I digress.

English cooking, incidentally, gets a very bad press. Yes, during, and for an unnecessarily long period after, WWII there was rationing which meant that some rather vital ingredients were rather hard to get. (The French had it easy, they were all fearless members of the résistance and found it no hardship to bleed a bit into the sauce so that it thickened. And they always seemed to have some cognac about.) Completely needless, maybe it was just habit, and a result of the political agendas of the time - sharing the hardship and all that - or possibly just incompetence. But the point is that England was always a resource-rich nation as opposed to - let's say, France - and consequently evolved a completely different style of cooking.

When you have a prime piece of meat, roasting it in the simplest fashion makes a hell of a lot of sense and you get to keep all the natural flavour: but when life hands you frogs' legs, which are your only option because the unspeakable unfettered aristocracy who happen to own you get to keep all the arable land as forest so that they can hunt, and take all the good bits of whatever mangy beasts you do actually manage to raise anyway, you do what you can to make them palatable. I guess.

Also explains the completely different cuts of meat. English cuts are designed to get the most of the best: in France a beast is cut so that everything gets used, and to hell with the consequences. Hence long, slow stewing. Anyway.

Getting back to the point, in one of those books there is a recipe for bavette farci, aka stuffed skirt steak, and it was one of the first that drew my attention. But somehow I never got around to it; partly, I suppose, because of the difficulty back in NooZild at the time of actually finding a piece of skirt steak that hadn't been promised to the cat.

And I never made it over here either, partly because a decent hunk of bavette costs an appendage of your choice and personally I'm quite happy just to fry it quickly and then eat it with a slab of foie gras melting over it and some bastard béarnaise dribbled over the lot.

But for some reason I found myself last night with a thick bit of hampe in the fridge, and most of the necessaries for the stuffing, and a certain urge, so after a quick stagger oop t'village to get a bit of mince (which is, let's face it, so much nicer freshly ground than the unspeakable stuff under nitrogen from the supermarket) I finally took the time to do it. After all these years.

Once you've butterflied your steak (easier said than done with hampe, given its architecture, but I am patient, and have very sharp knives) you can stick that aside and out of the reach of cats whilst you get the stuffing ready. If you happen to have a favourite you can use that: I followed Pépin and fried a couple of slices-worth of bread cubes in butter and oil, added a finely chopped shallot and heaps of garlic to that so that they softened, and mixed it all gently into 200gm of steak mince, beaten up with an egg and lots of chopped parsley and some thyme, salt and pepper.

Please do be gentle with it: you do not want your lovingly fried croutons turning into mush.

Pile that lot over the butterflied steak and pull one side over to cover it: personally I tie it, having learnt the trick of doing that neatly and quickly, but do feel free to resort to toothpicks if you wish. Then brown it rapidly all over in butter in one of those handy stainless steel sauteuses you really should have, add some sliced carrots and onions and let them brown too before putting a large chopped tomato into the mix.

And when all that's sizzling nicely, slosh in 250ml of wine and beef stock (proportions to taste, some stock is essential if only to keep up appearances, using too much wine would require you to open another bottle), bring to the boil then cover and let simmer for at least an hour.

At which point you can fish it out, reduce the sauce until thick, slice and serve. I am not going to say that you owe it to yourself to make this, nor that it was worth that 27-year wait, just that it is rather delicious and has the happy side effect of stretching out  the meat: good thing in our case as Jeremy appeared unexpectedly for dinner.

And right now I have another urge, which is to make bagels. Godnose why, not as though I'm Jewish, just wanna! wanna! Be good, people.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Twenties Sexy Women ...

Just another of the searches that the great Google sends my way, along with "motor Gaul sex", which kind of perplexes me.

So it was a dull, gray Sunday with nothing to look forward to, after morning mass, ogling the choirboys, doing the dishes and reseating the gaskets on the septic tank, and I was trying desperately to think of things I could do other than all those things I really ought to be doing when it came to me that I had those blood oranges in the fridge, and a tub of mascarpone in the freezer.

At which point, having better things to do, it became obvious that it would be a Good Idea to cover the bottom of one of my silicon cake moulds with a thick layer of cane sugar and cover that with the oranges, peeled à vif as they say, and put some up the sides, then make a custard with the mascarpone and a couple of eggs and some flour (not, perhaps, strictly speaking necessary), sugar and cinnamon and, as Margo wasn't watching, some powdered almonds, pour that over and top the lot off with some slices of pain d'épices before sticking it in the oven for half an hour, before unmoulding it. (Did I forget to mention that I actually had the oven on at the time? You should do that, otherwise the exercise is pretty pointless.)

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, anyway, but perhaps children should not try this unsupervised.

I have to admit that no great inroads were made into it at home, cooked oranges not being one of Margo's things and Jeremy was feeling poorly, but I took it into the office the next day and it didn't last more than thirty seconds, Jean-Charles - the photographer next door - being rather partial to sweet things.

Anyway, the merry month of May is now upon us, as we can tell from all the public holidays - which, nicely enough, fall in the middle of the week. Like yesterday, 1st May and so Labour Day: next week Wednesday is the 8 May celebrating the end of the last war, which is conveniently followed the very next day by the jeudi d'Ascension (this is a Catholic country, no matter what they may try to say) which means a three-day week.

Or for most people, a two-day week, as they will all do le pont and take Friday off, reckoning that there's no real point to going back to the office just for one day. Fair enough, I guess.

For some strange reason sleep proved elusive on Saturday morning: normally I have the alarm set for some semi-reasonable hour because otherwise I am quite capable of sleeping through to mid-day, at which point I would leap from bed with an urgent desire for half a baguette only to find that, as I had been asleep, no-one else would have gone off to get one as everyone else in this household seems to feel that bread is some sort of accessory - on top of that the market closes around 12:00, which would mean neither greenery, nor fruit. At which point certain persons would make Pointed Remarks.

Which is not the point, the point is that around 6am I woke, did those usual scratching, mumbling and turning over things that one does whilst wondering if you can possibly catch a bit more sleep before absolutely having to go to the toilet, which is rather odd because I always do that before going to bed and it's not as though I drink in my sleep so how come the bladder is always full at that sort of hour? Just asking - and anyway, I couldn't go back to sleep.

Yes, I managed to doze until 6:30, stirring uncomfortably to check the time every five minutes in case I had actually managed to snooze some more, but it rapidly became apparent that I was wide awake - and not a better man for it, sad to say, for I swore bitterly - and so decided to share the misery by going off and waking up the boulanger and getting a pain au chocolat aux amandes (for me, because I am a sucker for that) and a croissant (for Margo, for she does not like the other things).

When I die, let it be recorded on the credit side of the ledger that I waited for her to wake naturally (I do not sing in the shower, not often anyway) and then brought her coffee in bed, with her croissant, on a plate even. (Mostly because I hate crumbs in bed, I admit.) On the debit side, I'd already been up for an hour and, rather than improving the human condition or whatever, had spent that time lounging disreputably on the balcony dressed only in a very friendly fluffy dressing-gown, swilling coffee, scarfing patisserie, taking oral pleasure with a cigar, and roundly cursing those of our small feathered friends who thought that it was a good idea to chirp.

In any case, I got to the market rather earlier than is my wont, only to discover that the season for green asparagus seems to have ended (anyone who wants those obscenely gross white things is welcome to them, as far as I'm concerned), that the first nectarines have finally arrived on the stalls, as have indeed baby carrots, and that buying a plateau of 2kg of strawberries was some sort of moral imperative.

I must have been out of my mind, I mean what the hell can you do with that quantity of strawberries, even between two consenting adults? Swear, they were only in the car for about three hours, and when I finally got them home and unpacked them the bottom layer was already thinking seriously about a career as soup.

Mind you, the top layer was fine and wound up just getting hulled and sliced in half and tossed in a bowl with some sugar (just enough to encourage the juices to flow, it does work you know) and the rest went into another bowl (yeah, I cut the gross brown bits off the few that really needed that) with more sugar and lemon juice and then into the microwave for ten minutes of full-tit, which has at least changed the problem from "what to do with a kilo of rotting strawberries?" to "what to do with a kilo of strawberry coulis that will go rotten inna week?"

Which at least gives me a few more days to worry about it: more to the point, as it is no longer urgent, it'll be forgotten. Although I do have this idea in mind for a decadently rich chocolate cake held together by nothing more than cream and strawberries, which seems like a good idea to me.

Of course I totally forgot to pick up some limes, probably a good thing really as otherwise I'd have spent the afternoon making lime marmalade rather than getting on to the other things that really need doing ...

And one reason that the strawberries spent so much time in the car is that having stuck them in there with the rest of the loot I swung by Mr B's establishment to get some lamb chops and hampe and some chicken wings which are destined to be deep-fried and then finished off in sauce in the oven, and the road back took me past the Beer Tree and it seemed like a good idea at the time to get some vitamins - at which point Beckham turned up.

She seems to be having her mid-life crisis a wee bit early, poor thing's only thirty and a bit after all, and I have to admit that I really like her idea of a coffee bar/bookshop where you can have a scone seated in a comfy armchair (has to be overstuffed, otherwise not proper) and look out onto a green courtyard: still, I don't know that it would work.

Yes, there's As You Like It, rue du Bras de Fer in Montpellier, there's one whose name escapes me underneath the Bastille in Grenoble and doubtless any number in Paris, but I really am not sure that there's a big enough market in the small, bourgeois, insular provincial town that is Chambéry to make such a place viable, even if you can get your vibrator discreetly serviced out the back whilst you wait.

Whatever, it was a good thing that there was a bit of fortifying alcohol mixed in with the grape juice because when I got home I was tactfully reminded that in three weeks our neighbour and expert Monopoly player Stéphane will be having his fortieth birthday, that we have graciously agreed to let them use the paddock for the occasion, and that it would be a Good Idea, if only so as to avoid the loss of small children to some of whom Emilie is quite attached being as they're hers, if the grass were a bit lower.

So I girded up my loins, as one will on such occasions, went and borrowed the weed-whacker, and took it down to the paddock. Looked at it, it looked back - we seemed to be at an impasse here - and I decided that it seemed unlikely that it was going to give itself the short back'n'sides it so badly needed, and set to work.

Right now, I really regret that. Because my arms seem to no longer belong to the rest of my body, and my right hand is permanently clenched. And my legs are kind of wobbly. But what I really regret is not having the camera with me, and being too filthy to use it in any case, because when I put the infernal machine down for five minutes (just to pull out some more fil, not to have a drink) there was a salamander perched on a big hunk of grass just a metre away behind me, looking curiously at me. (I think I may have sent its mate to an early grave, much regretted and completely unintentional I assure you.)

They really are beautiful creatures, jet-black and gold. And that's the third one I've ever seen in my life, and the third time I've not had the camera on me. Bitch.

Anyway, mind how you go now.