Sunday, October 6, 2013

Exciting My Languid Spleen ... *

Yet another advantage of being down here in the lazy sun-kissed riotously-alcoholic soberly family-friendly south of France is that the beach is only half an hour away. So this evening we headed off east to Narbonne-Plage, noting with some smug satisfaction that everyone else appeared to be heading away from the place, and took Shaun for a romp on the beach.

As the sun goes down the masses of clouds over the Mediterranean go deep gray and merge into the sea on the horizon and the waves slosh onto the gray sand and send playful fingers up the beach and wash up a few shells and the odd dead bird or a condom or two, and when a few rays of light break orange and gold through the clouds Shaun seals the moment by finding some used toilet paper to chew on behind a clump of bushes.

Somehow, magic moments do not survive pets. Nor, it seems, does intelligence, as the accompanying graph clearly shows.

So anyway, Mad Karen rang this moaning to give us all the news that's fit to print: not only did they get burgled last night (computers, phones, the lot) whilst they slept - which I guess means that they both wear ear-plugs, or had very stealthy burglars - but her mother (who loves me) and sister are turning up from the States this very afternoon.

Given that the entire family is dysfunctional to a level that you wouldn't believe even in a Woody Allen film, I have to ask myself what could top all that off, complete the hat-trick as it were. A direct nuclear strike on Mumblefuck perhaps, but under the circumstances that might be considered a blessing ... I gather that Philippe has already started on the tranks.

Whatever, like babes in the wood we bought down here in the sunny south, hoping to escape the bloody Climate. All well and good, but they conspicuously fail to mention in the brochures that it does, in fact, rain in these here parts. I suppose I should have started to get suspicious when, wandering about, I spotted these culverts which looked rather sur-dimensionné, even to my untrained eye. I mean, who in their right minds would build a culvert a metre wide and about 80cm deep, somewhere it doesn't rain?

Excellent question - it seems, no-one. I guess on the principle that if you build it, they will come, they are there for those days like today, when it fair pissed down, and the rain gurgled happily down the gutters and turned the street into a (admittedly shallow) lake. But I will definitely have Words for Peter Mayle, should ever I come across him.

Having other things to do, like get a blood sample taken and little Suzy's front tyres replaced, we headed off to the marché at Narbonne instead (actually, as well as). Les halles is a magnificent building, which just about manages to do justice to its contents. First off, about six bars, serving tapas (hey, they're fashionable these days, and in any case we're only about an hour from Spain - get over it).

Walk in the southern entrance, and to left and right there are fishmongers. I stopped buying frozen fish quite a while back, for it is crap (although a 300gm packet of coquilles St-Jacques in the freezer is quite acceptable, and indeed de rigeur for those days when you have unexpected guests, as is a tin of foie gras in the fridge), but this was marvelous. Stalls packed with bar, and merlan, and pêche de roche, daurade, rouget and grondin, lotte (which is kind of hideously ugly if you ask my opinion, like someone ran over a leathery slug), espadon and thon, and mackerel ... bright little eyes, and the clean smell of iodine. I see that I shall have to drag out my ancient Larousse Culinaire so that I can work out exactly what some of these little buggers actually are, in a proper language. And to see what I can do with them.

The prices are kind of terrifyingly atmospheric, but we made it away from there with only 600gm of fresh dos de cabillaud (that would be cod to you lot, I do know that one) before going on our merry way. With visions of fish'n'chips, in beer batter, dancing in my brain.

There was a cheese stall - truth to tell, there were a couple, but they were far outnumbered by those selling olives in all their many guises (personally I can happily pass on the olive, a small stony fruit with zero culinary interest as far as I'm concerned but maybe that's just me) - and do you know what? No way I am paying 32€/kg for bloody Beaufort d'alpage. Next time I go up to Chambéry I shall take a chilly bin, and it shall not come back here empty.

One of the butchers had some agèd beef which called out to me, so I bought a slab of that as well - hardly green at all, and then we got on to the fruit & veg. Picked up some firm baby aubergines, the size and colour of passionfruit, which I suspect will just get sliced in half and roasted in the oven with lashings of olive oil, maybe on top of some tomatoes.

Also, sweetcorn!

Otherwise it's the usual suspects of course - pears, apples and the first clementines of the year (it's late autumn, people. The nectarines are crap) - and then came across some anones, from Spain.

Bought one, and on arriving back home had to go and check up on Wackymedia to see just what it really was. (Yes, I know, I have a phone and therefore internet access wherever I go, but I refuse to try and read pages rendered to a 3.5 x 2.5" screen and also searching is not a happy experience, given Samsung's obsession with making such little details as unpleasant as possible.)

Anyway the flesh is creamy white, with large black seeds: it is sweet, texture a bit granuleux, and tastes of - well, feijoa. According to that august organ of crowd-sourced wisdom I was eating a cherimoya (or custard apple), native to the Andes: Mark Twain apparently said that it was the most delicious fruit known to man (I would disagree, for he had apparently forgotten all about cherries, and ripe peaches, and strawberries) but it is not half bad. Although the guy on the stall did give us fair warning - "you'll either love it, or hate it" he said. True enough.

In fact, I can see that just maybe I shall be able to make that feijoa bretonne I used to do back in the day in Noo Zild again, sticking these things in, in the place of the genuine article. I think that will work.

For your general edification, just to the north of Carcassonne there is a small village, name of Montolieu, which decided some years back to call itself "le village des livres" and has done so with such obstinacy that now it's known by that name throughout France. Well, truth to tell, many years ago some bloke empassioned of books thought it would be a Good Idea if his village became some sort of Mecca for book-lovers, and with stubbornness and dedication, the relentless application of a personal reality distortion field and only a few "accidental" deaths along the way his dream was realised, and now this tiny place hosts about 18 bookshops, all of which seem to be thriving. Although god alone knows how.

We ambled around the narrow streets for a bit and poked our heads, followed by the rest of us, into Abélard's, one of those ancient half-timbered corner houses with big bubbly windows on two sides and a heavy wooden door that somehow manages to look solid and rickety at the same time.

You remember Black's Books? With Dylan Moran as the misanthropic foul-tempered bookshop owner? Apart from the owner's being, to all available evidence, perfectly charming, and certainly not at all Irish, this place was kind of like that. Books everywhere. Some gesture in the general direction of organisation had at one time been made, I guess, because there were a few little hand-scrawled labels tacked up about the place saying things like "Gastronomie" and "Regionalisme", but they were definitely more in the nature of guidelines than a definitive statement of what you were going to find in their vicinity.

Obviously enough some books were on shelves, but they'd run out of shelf space fairly early on, I'd guess, so there were more stacked on tables, and packed in boxes under tables, and in tottering piles under the stairs. And if you cared to venture onto the first floor where the English titles were tucked away - possibly to avoid corrupting the innocent, I don't know - some had been pressed into service to construct a solid-looking tower that was holding up one corner of a desk, which was itself supporting a 90's-era PC and an ancient studio patch board..

Also, Weeping Angels!
We left empty-handed though, not that the owner seemed to mind - he was busy haggling with a rangy white-haired Englishman over a late 19th century book of plates and had little time for anything more than a perfunctory "bonne journée" as we sidled out the door and into the sunlight. Maybe he did have a thing about actually selling any of his books.

You can't really take in that many bookshops in one afternoon and we didn't actually try that hard, especially as a suspiciously large number of them seemed to have sections devoted to esotérisme, healing yourself with flowers, and accountancy. But there was supposed to be a glass-blower down one of the alleys, and I am a sucker for glass, so we set bravely off in that general direction ...

Only to find ourselves at La Manufacture Royale, an imposing construction built in 1739 by order of Louis XV (if you can believe the little plaque on the front door) to house a linen factory, and which is now home to, amongst other things, a restaurant, yet another huge bookstore, and the fore-mentioned glass-blower - who turned out to be closed. I suppose we are no longer in the height of the tourist season, but it seemed a shame, especially as some of the bits I could see peering in through the grimy windows looked rather attractive.

It's an impressive pile, and well worth a look should you ever find yourselves in the neighbourhood. I will definitely be back, if only because on December 14th there is a renowned marché aux truffes in Moussellens, an otherwise undistinguished village just down the road, on the way back to Carcassonne. And I've always wanted to go to one of those. Not that I'm likely to be buying.

Also, on one side of the little square where we'd parked there was this, which kind of piqued our interest. It turned out to be just what it said on the tin: a distributeur of organic produce. You go up, pick the little casier that strikes your fancy - the one with the juiciest slugs on the lettuce, or the wormiest carrots - put your money in the slot and make off with the loot. I'm kind of surprised that they haven't yet extended the principle to cute puppies and kittens staring mournfully at you through the glass, but I suppose it's just a matter of time.

* Gilbert and Sullivan. Go on, you know you want to.


  1. Nor, it seems, does intelligence, as the accompanying graph clearly shows.

    I see. Quoting xkcd like everyone else is not good enough; you have to go all artisanal on us,

  2. 1): I have no shame.
    2): Also, no talent.
    But I don't care, because of 1)

  3. personally I can happily pass on the olive, a small stony fruit with zero culinary interest as far as I'm concerned but maybe that's just me

    No, it's not - I share your distaste for the wretched things. (There seems to be a trend for olive trees in one's garden in Hamilton these days - not a trend we will be following!)