Saturday, August 24, 2013

Disturbed! Mind Threadworms ...

... not that I'm trying to encourage that sort of searcher, oh no, just mentioning it. Also, "dressing for pleasure", which seems to have wound up here, although godnose why.

So anyway, Friday finished up with a bit of excitement around these parts: a forest fire about 6km away I guess, between here and Douzens off to the west. First we knew about it was the great billowing plumes of yellowish-grey smoke, and then a big twin-engined turboprop came flying slow and low overhead, circling and banking so hard that if there were any passengers they'd certainly have lost their lunches on the first pass.

Then a fleet of four or five Canadairs came lumbering in over the rooftops, banking around to drop their loads of water and, according to urban myth, unwary swimmers. They must have made six flights, heading back to Narbonne after each pass to top up with a skim over the sea. They're impressive beasts.

Now there is no market around these parts of a Saturday - unless I go through to Narbonne or Carcassonne, which I suppose is not really any different from heading off to Chambéry - which left me at kind of a loose end. Of course, I had other things to do, which is probably why I decided to go for a walk instead of doing them.

As luck would have it, the GR77 - grande randonnée, one of the countless hiking trails that criss-cross France - goes right in front of the house before heading up into the montagne d'Alaric, this being named after Alaric II, king of the Visigoths back in the 5th: according to the local legend he had a chateau built up on the heights and buried his treasure in a cave there, whatever was left of the spoils from the sack of Rome. Oh, and when I say montagne, this is relative: its highest point is something like 560m, and we're at about 90m here ...

Anyway, I was actually kind of enjoying myself as I ambled along the rocky track, with the cicadas doing their thing noisily in the trees and the hot air full of the smell of pines and sage and rosemary and thyme and lavender - then it dawned on me that the stones were bouncing the heat back on me and that the pines, too far off to offer any shade, were doing an excellent job as a wind-break, and that not only was the air hot, it was also still.

But I carried on regardless, until I made it to the ruins of the prieuré de St-Pierre on a little outcrop of rock just off the main trail, where there was a blessed breath of air, and upon discovering that the camera battery had chosen this moment to go flat on me I decided that I could probably turn back without loss of face.

Monday I had to head back up to Chambéry for two weeks, minding the shop whilst Renaud's off on holiday at Arcachon, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone, combine business with pleasure, and any other metaphor that happens to spring to mind: we went off to the local Intermarché, picked up a 7m3 van, bundled ourselves and Shaun into the thing, and drove merrily off into the morning, destination St Pierre and the final emptying of our left-over stuff from Sue's Garage.

And rather to my surprise, everything fitted in - even the sewing machines at which Margo frowned and said "I'm sure I left orders that those were to go to the tip" - with a bit of room in which to swing a very small cat, if you'd no objection to a bit of blood.

So we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves, all things considered, as we headed back to Montmelian to pick up Jeremy and take him out for a birthday dinner. Under protest, I must say: oddly enough for someone in his line of work, he really only eats to live. Also, he's got this thing against eating in restaurants, which I suppose is kind of understandable.

We twisted his arm, he grudgingly consented, and we went past la Fine Fourchette, which isn't half bad in my experience: it was closed. It is August, after all. On top of it, the 15th of August, which over here is a public holiday, for some reason which escapes me.

Pizza is not really one of my go-to eat-out meals, but the choice of restaurants in Montmelian is rather limited so we drove past La Scala and the doors were open - for family and friends only, it seems, as the woman who came out informed us. In desperation we asked whether or not there was another eatery worth going to in the place, or even one that was open - "Eh oui monsieur, il y a Le Clé des Champs sur la nationale ...", as if we would be able to drag Jerry in to eat where he cooks.

Off then to Chambery, passing by Challes just on the off-chance (everything closed, might have known it), parked, and started hunting. OK, so the dump is considered to be kind of dull after 20h even in the height of the season, but that evening it was clinically dead. The quiet of the grave was broken only by the tourists wandering vaguely, I assume looking - like us - for somewhere to get a meal that wasn't going to fight back, or be all passive-aggressive.

The Beer Tree was closed, as was Modesto, and I categorically refuse to go into Cardinals since they redecorated and removed the slightly shabby charm of the place (and the meals and service are, at best, mediocre in my experience), and we were starting to experience hunger pangs, so we wound up at Le Vivaldi on rue Croix d'Or, having - you guessed it - pizza.

And there's an interesting question. I put it to you, if you were a tourist, freshly arrived in Chambéry after a long coach trip from Turin, would you actually choose to go find an Italian restaurant and eat pizza? I thought not. But those flocks of tourists I spoke of earlier swooped down with gleeful cries and settled in to do exactly that. I dunno, whatever happened to the spirit of adventure?

Not that the pizzas were actually bad. I had one that they called "le Corse" - fig jam, prosciutto, goat's cheese and a drizzle of honey - and it was very pleasant. The damn thing was far too big, of course, and I must admit that with all the honey it got a bit cloying towards the end. But washed down with a couple of glasses of an excellent Corsican white it hit the spot.

Whatever, Margo drove the van back down the next day, hopefully arriving in time to take Shaun off to his first doggy obedience class (see where that gets us, ha ha) but it was my lot to head off up to the office, answer the phone if required and generally look after the place. Not that there was much looking after required, everyone's off on holiday and I think in those ten days I fielded one phone call, which turned out to be a wrong number anyway. Hardly any mail either, and no bills, which is always a pleasant surprise.

Then the other day I was wandering around the market, smile on my lips, a song in my heart - for it was a fine sunny day - and vast quantities of ripe deformed tomatoes, peches plates and other goodies in the bag and could not help but notice a subtle transformation here in provincial France. I have moaned and whinged about it often enough: it used to be that if you wanted a light meal or whatever after the morning's exertions you had buggerall choice apart from the eternal café-croissant or a full, huge and usually totally uninspiring meal involving sad steak and soggy chips.

Things have changed in Paris I guess, Dave Lebowitz writes lovingly of the shabby-swish little cafés serving original food, Le Camion Qui Fume which sells the best burgers in the Ile de France, and other such delights that we stuck here to vegetate in the provinces can only dream of enviously, but still ... going through Carrefour the other day, right next to the fish department was a gleaming sparkly-new erection of wood and stainless steel in which a couple of Japanese-looking guys presided over a fresh squishi bar.

And then, as I headed down avenue de Boigne off to the market I went past a brand-new shop, elegantly kitted out (more stainless steel) and dispensing cups of freshly-made, steaming noodles. At the market itself there was once a rather glum little place that sold sad, soggy-looking pasta: in its place something upmarket in glass and stainless steel (is there some sort of trend here, I wonder?) selling fresh ravioles, fettucine that looked as though they'd just rolled it out (which they possibly had) ... laugh if you will, but I think that just maybe the French are starting to work out that there are other cuisines than their own, and to rediscover the simple pleasures of eating.

Finally, some alarming news, I guess: my preferred journal of reference for the hard sciences had this warning Nude swimmers warned of GONAD-GOBBLING FISH ON THE LOOSE for those who like to go skinny-dipping off the Scandinavian coast-line. So just mind how you go.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Bells, The Bells ...

It's an odd thing, but for my entire adult life I have been using a marble slab to roll out my pastry and croissant dough, and never once have I felt the urge or, indeed, the need to stick a plastic bag of ice cubes on it half an hour before use, as recommended in all the best cookbooks. Well, down here I have had to change my habits. As the temperature inside the house is something like an even 27° my marble slab has settled down to that, all the way through, and that is just too damn warm: the smears of butter in the dough become puddles, which is not good.

So should ever you notice that I have ice packs all over the kitchen bench, you will know the reason why. And it is not because of the night before.

Tuesday night I shall have to cook a decent meal for six, and apparently live up to some sort of high standard, the reason being that Saturday night we went round for that barbecue at Pirate Philippe's and kind of felt obliged to invite them over in return. I have to admit that the wine consumption was way down compared to the apéro earlier on, not such a bad thing I guess, but he did bring out an excellent Spanish brandy as a digestif at the end of the meal.

Then the next night Sophie is dropping in on her way back from la maison rose at Nogaro, bearing - I hope - gifts of myrrh and frankincense foie gras. Which means another classy dinner to worry about. (Update: as it happens, and knowing Sophie, I wound up just doing burgers - with home-made buns, mind you. And pickled beetroot, and all the other trimmings. And a vast salad, to satisfy the dark side of the rabbit in her. With lemon and goat's cheese soufflés for dessert, surprisingly tangy and delicious. Well, I found them to be so anyway, and as there were four of us, I'd made six, and by the end of the evening there were none left, I would hazard a guess that everyone else felt the same.)

Anyway, these problems are still in the distant future, being as what it's but Monday. Now crueller souls than I say that in France they love to complicate your life: this is not true, they just want to make sure that it's as shitty as possible. Don't really care if it's complicated, it should just be soul-destroyingly miserable.

Case in point, we have moved and, not only that, we have (Shock! Horror!) changed départements. In a normal country this would, I guess, be no big deal but we are in France and so we have one (1) month from date of arrival here in the Aude to go get a new carte grise for the car, failing which we are in infraction and liable for a swingeing fine.

So this morning we woke with the bells (have no choice, really, unless we use ear-plugs: that late-model trebuchet de table I saw advertised recently is looking more and more attractive, as is the 75mm howitzer at the army-surplus place) and headed off to the préfecture at Carcassonne, to get our papers in order. I guess it is summer, so by dint of studiously ignoring the GPS Of Doom we navigated the one-way system successfully enough and even found a park not too far from where we wanted to be, and on top of it the queue for modification de carte grise was not long at all.

Not content with that, we thought, being as we were there and all, that it might as well be an idea to change the address on our cartes de résident: not such a good idea really, as the one and only guichet dealing with such matters was, apparently, occupied by someone really, really, conscientious, so the wait between n° 503 (when we came in) and n° 507 (our turn), seemed kind of interminable. (As Woody Allen once remarked, in one of his rare humorous moments, "Eternity is very long. Especially towards the end.")

And when we finally did get in, the guy said "Ah. Changement d'adresse, changement de département: va falloir prendre rendez-vous ..." So I thought bugger, in one week I'm off for ten days, hope they can fit that in ... "eh bien, j'ai une possibilité le 3 octobre". I suppose I really needn't have worried. Still, he was really laid-back about it, and fetchingly dressed in shorts and sandals: don't see that much in Savoie.

Also, we is getting another dog. We got one ten days back from the SPA, but the morning after he arrived he jumped the balcony, landed on the tiles above the garage, and then jumped down onto the street 2m below and eagerly ran off: about a week after that he wound up back at the bénévole who'd been looking after him since he turned up at the pound, so we thought that there was no fighting that and she'd decided that she really wanted to keep him anyway, so we did what was best for him and let him go ... sadly, but we neither of us wanted to go through that again.

But then she rang, to say that there was a berger des Pyrenées at the pound at Narbonne, waiting for adoption ... and Margo went off to take a look, and turned up back at the house four hours later with Shaun.

He seems to have taken to us, and to have adopted us anyway, with special love for me. Their best guess is that he's around 18 months old, but he's still kind of puppyish. Probably just as well, we might be able to train him properly. And it is a Good Thing I need new jandals anyway, as one of mine has become his uncuddly toy. But he is very loving, and hardly jumps on people at all, although he did pay particular - and suspicious - attention to Sophie's dress, probably tugging it to see if it would come off.

Now if ever you have occasion, as we did on Wednesday, to head off through the little départmentales that link the teeny villages around here, like the D72 that will - eventually - get you from Puichéric onto the D11 and thence to La Redorte and Azille, you may notice that in all these townships there are clusters of loudspeakers mounted around the place.

Moux is no exception, and I must admit to wondering at first whether or not they were some relic from the Cold War, destined to broadcast coded messages ("Les carottes sont cuites! Je répète, les carottes sont cuites!") to warn the peasant population of the imminent nuclear holocaust destined to cleanse them from the face of the earth, with only those in the underground bunkers (sadly constructed of nothing more impressive than corrugated iron and baling wire) deep beneath the mairie surviving the initial onslaught of the godless Communists, and the swift but regrettably equally lethal riposte of the godawful Free World™.

The point must remain moot, for quite frankly I have no idea, nor any great wish to find out, but they are certainly not unused these days. There you, are, sitting out on the terrace toying with a glass of vitamins, and suddenly there's this Orwellian moment when a loud buzzing wakes the cicadas as the old valve amplifiers get 230V stuck into them somewhere they weren't expecting it, followed by a brassy fanfare that sounds like someone farting into a tuba and then, The Announcement. "Mouxois, Mouxoises! Le club du 3ème age vous informe qu'un grand tournoi lotto aura lieu ce soir, à 19h, à la déchetterie. N'oubliez pas vos assiettes et vos couverts!"

At these times I half-expect to see giant white balls bouncing majestically through the streets of the village, implacably pursuing a fleeing man in a blazer, but I guess I've just watched a few too many episodes of The Prisoner in my misspent youth.

Just saying, but I sent a mail off to those of you whose e-mails I have with our new address and phone numbers. Some of those got bounced back (thinking especially of you, Julianne, amongst others) so all of you who didn't get that and who are interested should just send me a mail (the old address still seems to be valid) and I'll get back to you. That is all.

Also, I note that the 8th was International Female Orgasm Day. I hope you celebrated it fittingly.

Friday, August 2, 2013

I Have Small Black Warty Balls ...

No sex please, we're French
... read on, you'll find out. But first, thanks to the services of a wiry, efficient and heavily-accented repair-man (but nowhere near as incomprehensible as the tanned studly youth who connected our phone), we have rediscovered the Joy of Dishwashers. It used to be Mad Karen's (the dishwasher, not the tanned studly youth, but she does tend to dream) but got passed on to us when she left the apartment in Chambéry to go off and seek love and self-fulfillment at Mumblefuck, and it gave us a few years of loyal service and, let it be said, great physical pleasure, before, one day, it decided to stop working.

A quick google showed that many people had experienced the same symptom and had cured it by enthusiastically shaking the thing, which sounded kind of like voodoo even at the time but when in extremis you'll try most anything, and we shook it and, for good measure, threatened and then insulted it: it sullenly consented to work again, but a week later it stopped and steadfastly refused to budge. Even tempting it with an exceptionally greasy plate had no effect.

At the time we had other worries so we left it sitting there in the kitchen, but when we shifted down here we thought that we might as well bring it with us - thinking that maybe the change of climate would soften its stony heart, who knows - and on installing it in its place, hied us to a magasin electromenager to ask for their help. And so they promised to send their best man the very next day and, somewhat to my surprise, for this is the south after all, the guy duly turned up with a bulging tool kit. And a sack of spanners and stuff like that.

He listened to our tale of woe and then, taking the obstreperous machine by surprise, wrestled it to the ground and had the bottom plate off in mere seconds. (Maybe this is why the French from around here are so good at rugby.)

Then he dived into its guts and pulled a large hunk of broken glass out of the pump - could not, as he said, have been good for it - and tried it again. Still no joy, but never despair, he had its skirts up again and this time twiddled with the motor, which he said seemed grippé. And eventually, after half an hour, a cold beer and a mere €60 for the déplacement and his time, he had it working and was headed off to his next life-threatening emergency. My hero!

I know I said that we went off to la nuit de la poésie on Saturday (and I flaked, pleading fatigue): I failed to mention one of the more amusing parts of such gatherings, which is that there is always a number of older persons, mostly male, casually dressed but spotless, chattering enthusiastically and showing every sign of the bon vivant. The meal was no exception to this general rule, and the conversation was more than usually fun.

A bon vivant in its natural habitat
For these gentlemen of a certain age were discovering smartphones, and bragging about how their twitter was bigger than yours, and how on the Samsung Galaxy III Tab (pronounced with capitals, just like I wrote it) there was a facebook. Which is apparently the web, or something like that. And as for your iPhone, it pisses warm spit, in their considered opinion. Who'd have thought it?

Anyway, today being Wednesday it was market day at Lézignan, and having been duly warned by Margo - who'd headed off there last week with Janet and Kevin - I went early, like arriving at 8:05. Which was indeed a Good Thing, because I managed to get there just before the rush, and even found a park less than 2km away.

Only a small sample yet I know, but I do find these things to be so much more animated down south. Had I been there later I suspect I might have been buffeted to death, as it was it felt as though much of the surrounding countryside had already arrived, intent on letting everybody know. Muscled old women were darting hither and thither to chat with cherished friends they'd not seen for all of half an hour, small children were rushing underfoot, and the males of the species were, thanks to the magic of the cellphone, seated at a bar busily regaling their pétanque partners with a blow by blow account of how good the melons looked. And the fruit and vegetables, too.

Me, I found a spice merchant (always handy) and a couple of stalls selling nowt but paella: the cheese selection was pretty limited though, and also hideously expensive. I mean, €26/kg for Morbier? Then there were any number of stalls with tiny dried sausages like matchsticks, and primeurs by the bucketful, and it was at one of these latter that, for the first time in my life, I bought a truffle.

Cheap at only €100/kg and smells, quite literally, like shit - no, not quite true, more like a bucket of soil might smell if someone had thoughtfully stuck a dead chicken in it a few months back, and left it to ripen. I shall have to think of something to do with it now. I'll let you know how that works out. But first of all I shall go consult the authorities, for there are differences of opinion as to whether the little buggers should be peeled, or just well-scrubbed: I would hate to get it wrong.

Later ... that wasn't too bad. My cookbooks being still in the back wall of cardboard boxes and thus inaccessible, I resorted to the Great Google and came upon a recipe from Epicurious which I combined with another one I vaguely remembered, just for fun. Luckily I happened to have a duck breast, so I used my fingers and small ouch! ouch! sharpy knife to separate fat from flesh, leaving the two attached down a 1cm strip lengthways. (Are you following me here?)

Then, having carefully washed my truffle, and peeled it (peelings, and the rest of the truffle, are now in a closed jar with a few eggs for when I feel like making an omelette) I took some very thin slices off it (mandoline? I spit at mandolines. A good sharp knife is all that's necessary) and stuck some of those between fat and flesh before sticking it in a hot pan, skin side down, to start cooking and render some fat.

When that was done, out went the duck and in went some cubes of potato, to fry in the duck fat with a bit of salt and be joined, ten minutes later, by some petits pois and chopped shallots ... then they too went into a bowl and into the pan went a couple of chopped mushrooms, finely chopped truffle, more shallot and, when browned, a sprinkling of flour.

For a proper sauce perigueux you'd have to use Madeira but I have none of that on hand, so the pan got deglazed with some Banyuls, the sauce thus obtained enriched with a slab of butter and some chives, then the duck breast sliced and chucked back in to be reheated and served with the potatoes and peas on the side. Can't complain, I suppose.

Thursday Edgar's surrogate mother (Edgar, incidentally, has not been seen since Sunday morning, with any luck he's flown off and found a flock somewhere) came past and invited us to an apéro at midday. That sounded pretty good, so we pulled on our glad rags and headed round at the appointed hour ...

When we were comfortably installed under a parasol at the table in the courtyard out back, her partner Philippe did the honours and asked what we'd like to drink, and came back with a dripping bottle of white from the Chateau de la Baronne ("un copain", he said, "et son vin n'est pas mal non plus") and a red for Margo, and Caroline busied herself with chunks of melon and poivrons marinated in olive oil (what else, around these parts?).

We started talking, as one will, and shortly into the conversation Philippe noticed that the bottle of white was empty, and headed off to get another one to go with the pizza ... must be evaporation or something, because they'd just promised to introduce me to the young Italian oenologue for the chateau, who also happens to be an impassioned cook, when he was obliged to find yet another bottle.

And another few bottles later, once we'd put the world to rights, discussed the lamentable tendency of the English to keep to themselves in a sort of ghetto without taking the trouble to even try to learn French, found out that he'd had a varied career in "import-export", as he put it delicately, down in the Pacific and now went around with a gang of Polish workers renovating chateaux, and that she has a landscape gardening company in Toulon, it was around 18:00, and we found ourselves agreeing to come back the next evening for a barbecue. Hopefully, we'll find out more: I am dying to know how the guy came to spend time flitting between Wallis & Fortuna, northern Africa and Cuba.

Under other circumstances the words "gun-running", "arms dealer" and "smuggler" might come to mind, or maybe "civil servant", but I am willing to give the chap the benefit of the doubt and admit that he might, just possibly, be a business-man with wide-ranging interests. As they say. Shall let you know, as and when.

Mind how you go, now.

Oh yes, Orange seems not to have disposed of my e-mail address - at least, it still appears to work - so do keep using it if you feel the urge. Bye, I'm off to make dinner.