Monday, November 11, 2013

Train Trips and Hothouses ...

So we headed off to Homps, about fifteen minutes vaguely north of here, along the little twisty-turny départementales through Puichéric and past la Redorte, and eventually made it to En Bonne Compagnie, despite Michelin's insistence that we could just turn left at the northern end of the bridge onto the quai des Négociants ... that would have been a mistake, as there's a three-metre drop and if you miss the quai you're in the canal, but never mind, car suspension can always be replaced. And Suzy has many tricks up her exhaust manifold, she can probably swim.

Like a lot of restaurants out in the sticks around here they close down at the beginning of November, reasonable enough as I guess most of their custom comes from passing tourists and these are rara avis once autumn comes in, so sadly Margo's choice of entrée, the salade aux langoustines, was off and nothing else really tickled her fancy. Personally I had a bit of difficulty choosing between the aumonière de chèvre avec confit de figues and the foie gras but you know me, common sense won out and pretty soon there was a thick slab of foie gras poached in something like a Banyuls, I'd guess, sitting in front of me.

It was excellent, as was the salad that came with it: the little dice of caramelised pear that were heaped on the plate in fact paired very nicely but there was way too much: a little goes a long way in my opinion. And if you're going to serve it with pain d'épices, I really do think that it should be toasted until crisp, rather than left nature and floppy. Maybe it's just me.

Margo picked lotte, aka monkfish - which I guess gets its name from the fact that other fishy denizens of the deep, not being good Catholics, try to keep their little offspring out of its reach - for her main course. The poor thing is hideously ugly - looking kind of like a squashed leathery slug, as I've remarked before - but once you get over that the fillets are thick and round, about the size of a filet de porc: boneless, meaty, and not at all dry. So if you wrap it in thin slices of jambon cru and then cook it rapidly either on a grill or in a decent poele, it's difficult to ruin. That came teamed with tagliatelles de legumes, which seems to be trendy these days but no matter, it went down very well.

Actually, monkfish would make a pretty good dish for a Halloween dinner party. I can just imagine the scene down in the Officer's Mess of the Queen's Own Cowards, 13th Regiment ...

"As you were, sergeant - an ongoing festive meal status update report, if you please?"
"YesSAH Colonel Grytpype! Fish course, SAH! One (1) monkfish, SAH!, standard issue, children, for the frightening of, SAH!"
"Ah, very terrifying, with figgy pudding, I see - very good, that man. Carry on, sergeant ..."

Me, I went for the feuilleté de magret de canard, sauce aux mûres, and found it extremely good. Thick slices of just-right grilled duck breast sandwiched between puff pastry, and a not-at-all sweet coulis of blackberries reduced with wine poured around. Shame that makes the bottom layer of pastry go all soggy, but that's kind of unavoidable. Culinary collateral damage.

The choice of desserts is sort of limited, which is fair enough and in my opinion entirely reasonable (I do not wish to have a geriatric waiter pull a cart of mediocre sticky stuff out in front of me, I want something that excels in its class, no matter how simple), and as sadly there was nothing unreasonably chocolatey I passed, but Margo went for a pannacotta with rhubarb purée, which she reckoned went perfectly together.

And we escaped into the night only €66 lighter, not too bad at all when you consider that we each had two glasses of the house wine - Corbières of course, red, white or rosé.

So getting back to that fish I promised you: you'll usually find rouget translated as red mullet, which is not totally inaccurate if you happen to live around the Mediterranean, but is otherwise hopelessly wrong. For they are perciform and, to boot, Mullidae, rather than Mugilidae. Not the same beast at all! (Or so Whackywedia informs me, and it's on the internets so it must be true. Also, I am totally willing to believe this because fish in Ole Yurrup are nowt like fish in Noo Zild. Or, perhaps, vice versa. Must be Chernobyl, or something.)

Anyway, I scaled the little buggers - a tedious task 'cos the scales do tend to stick, but it's easily done with a bit of insistence from the thumbnail - and then gutted them (for they were reasonably big) and then, because I was getting into the swing of things, butterflied them. Before roasting some slices of aubergine, topping those off with sliced fresh tomatoes reduced with - I'm sad to say - vast quantities of butter and garlic, and then the fish: the whole lot then went back into the oven for ten minutes. It was OK, nothing to write home about, though.

Caroline and Piratical Philippe are supposed to be coming over for dinner Monday or Tuesday night, before I head back up to Chambéry: shall try to make something a bit more memorable for them. Maybe pizza, pig, and pastis aux poires: at least I have everything required for that.

Now I don't really want to ruin your Christmas, dash the anticipatory smiles from your faces as you eagerly rip the papier cadeau from your presents, but do think I've found a perfect stocking-stuffer. Waiting to get some cigars at the tabac this morning I was casting my eyes over the racks of magazines and they got caught by a single slim volume of glossy photos, enticingly entitled "Roundabouts of Savoy". Maybe it sounds better in the original, "Les Ronds-points de Savoie".

Headed off to Médipole on Thursday evening to see Jacques: only 48 hours after having a metre of intestine whipped out and the ends sewn back together I found the old fool sitting up doing crossword puzzles, grumbling about the food, and flirting with the nurses. Makes you wonder some times, it really does.

I had also planned, while I was up in Chambéry, to go see Jeremy, and to this end I even let him know, in advance, that I was going to be around: sad to say when I gave him a call on Friday he told me that he was off in Albertville, at some sort of exposition culinaire, to meet suppliers for the restaurant and scarf free food and drink. Maybe the chef is grooming him for higher things.

Then I had all Saturday more or less alone, and found myself - as usual - soaking up the watery sunlight outside the Beer Tree, nursing a glass of vitamins after a quick trot round the market. Then Camille came out from behind the bar to join me, and a few minutes later there was Simon, bearing two enormous plates heaped with bretzels stuffed with jambon cru and chèvre and confiture des figues, and mounds of salad with even more ham and thick shavings of parmesan ... made me feel a bit peckish watching them tuck in, so I made an excuse and left to get my own lunch ready.

Don't know, maybe despite the fact that I actually do some work for the SNCF they don't seem to like me - or maybe that is in fact the reason, shall have to think about that - but this is about the fourth time my TGV has been 40 minutes late. It was already enough of a bitch organising things to get back home, what with Saturday's TGVs costing about 120€ for the trip - which is why I opted to go on Sunday, when it was only 53€, and that had its own disadvantages ie a long wait at Valence. Which turned out to be even longer, for as it was cold and pissing down with rain at Chambéry that morning, and Stacey was headed off for the day, I opted for a lift into town at 8:30 rather than hang around in the cold and wet until the only bus trundled past at 11.

Which meant I caught the 9:30 to Grenoble and still had time to go off to Carrefour d'Asie, just behind the gare at the St. Bruno tram stop - which was, rather to my surprise, open - and pick up some sugar and curry pastes before taking the autocar through to Valence (yeah, I know, the rail line is still closed for travaux) and getting in there at midday. Where I had a four hour wait before the next TGV going through Narbonne, and the buggers expect you to pay 3€ for twenty minutes of Wifi access in the gare ...

Whatever, the sandwiches aren't too foul there - they don't have this mad impulse to slather bloody mayo over everything - and I had some stuff to do that didn't require Internet access, so I waited and swigged coffee and typed and then read a cookbook until the train pulled up and we were off. Until about an hour later, when we came to a rolling stop in the middle of nowhere and sat there for twenty minutes while the guy who'd done his training at the International School for Airport Announcers in Geneva came on the PA system and mumphled into his sleeve, which I eventually managed to translate as a request for us passengers to please not try to leave the train. It was either that, or he had a very bad cold.

Finally they got the rubber bands wound up again and we started crawling away and finally, somewhere around Montpellier, they deigned to tell us that high winds had brought down the catenaires somewhere south of Narbonne, so that was where the train was going to stop. Which, eventually, it did. Decanting me, and a whole mob of Spaniards who'd rather hoped to be going to Barcelona, out into the blustery night.

I know I can occasionally sound smug about it, but until recently it is true that the daytime temperatures have been hovering around the 20s, which isn't so bad (and certainly a damned sight better than the 11° I was "enjoying" in Chambéry) considering we're well into November ... still, we've lit the fire a couple of times, and while I was off enjoying myself Margo made an executive decision to start up the central heating.

To no avail, which is why Philippe turned up at the doorstep with one of his tame Poles this morning, and they vanished up into the attic to look at the chaudière, which is a big white and yellow beast - a de Dietrich, in fact - that sits up there and purrs smugly to itself. Now it turns out that when the system was installed, rather than stick thermostatic taps on all the radiators as most decent-minded people do, they unbeknownst to me stuck a thermostat in the kitchen, which by the ineffable operation of the Holy Spirit - or something like that - is supposed to ensure that the house stays at the temperature we like.

Furthermore, the damn thing runs off two AA batteries, and I strongly suspect that the ones in there dated back to its installation ... pop some new ones in, still no joy. "Fear not" cried the little Polish heating expert, who did a remarkable impression of Droopy the dog: "I shall go bang on it with a large hammer, and threaten it with my screwdriver", both of which things he proceeded to do.

Paying particular attention to the circulator pump which had, over five or six years of disuse, bogged up and jammed with a build-up of calcaire, which didn't help matters. So he threatened and banged and scraped and screwed, and finally the recalcitrant beast went smoothly into action and five minutes after that every radiator in the house was straining at the seams and glowing red-hot as the boiler gave of its all.

Mind how you go, now.

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