Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Pleasant Surprise ...

Well, as Christmasses go that could've been a damn sight worse. Our good friend Tom turned up a few days back, prepared for the howling frigid gales of which we'd dutifully - as thoughtful hosts - warned him, so it stayed obstinately fine and windless. And Christmas day itself dawned bright and sunny, and as time wore on the sun got hotter, and my carefully prepared plans went out the window and we dragged a table and chairs out onto the terrace and sat out eating foie gras and barbecued chicken and jacket potatoes and salad. And getting rid of a couple of the bottles that have been sitting around here for long enough: a 2002 Bordeaux cru bourgeois and a 2005 Macon blanc.

There are any number of variously elaborate recipes for preparing foie gras, including soaking in milk, but I went for the simplest I could come across: pepper the thing, roll up in muslin and shoehorn it into a terrine just big enough to hold it, cover with a good dessert wine (I went for a mixture of Banyuls and medium sherry, somehow there was less Banyuls in the bottle than I recalled) and put the lid on before putting it in the oven for 45 minutes or so, on low.

Hint - given the price of foie gras, it may be cheaper to buy a terrine of the right size to fit the liver you have, rather than the other way around. Just saying. Happily, I have a selection.

Next time, I shall have to remember to pepper the liver a bit more heavily before putting it in the terrine, also to cook it on a lower heat, but it was far from being a disaster. So there shall, indeed, be a next time.

Then, to get into shape for dinner, we went off to the beach. Bit south of Narbonne, shade north of Port Leucate. It was gray and overcast and desolate there, but lovely - like most beaches in winter - and Shaun ran and gamboled like a mad thing on the sand, looking for the most disgusting dead thing he could find. Dogs can be so gross.

And once we'd got properly sandy and got the tang of salt up our nostrils and generally worked up a bit of an appetite, it was back home for those pan-fried venison steaks (beautifully tender after 48 hours in their marinade) and gratin dauphinois and goldenrod broccoli, finished off with blackberry charlotte just because I could. A wonderful day, hope yours was as good.

Of course it had to go titsup, and as we ate and the fire blazed (just for the fun of it) the rain started to pound on the roof as we wolfed down the food, and it kept going all through Boxing Day. Seems to be traditional or perhaps, in the words of my esteemed but junior colleague, "an ancient charter, or something". Still, we managed to avoid the gale-force winds that buffeted northern France, and so far still no snow.

Friday was another perfect day, so having better things to do and being anyway in dire need of cigars I took Tom off to the cité at Carcassonne. It is a massive pile, not too much the worse for the wear over the centuries, and I must admit that I rather appreciated the visit myself - must be something like 17 years since last I took a look. Doesn't seem to have changed much in that time, with the (welcome) exception that poop-scoop bag dispensers have been installed around the place so you're no longer at such risk of slipping on dog turds on the picturesque cobbled streets.

Then Saturday was market day again, and we had to sort out Tom's phone card and his train through to Turin on Sunday, and I wanted more suet (because there really is nothing like decent suet pastry once you've tasted it), which meant Narbonne.

Got the market done under a beautiful windless clear blue sky and about 15°, I guess - not too bad for winter - and dumped the loot in little Suzy before heading back into the centre of town. Found an Orange boutique without too much difficulty, and after only five minutes a black-skirted blonde with knee-high white patent-leather boots deigned to look up from her iThing and notice us.

She was actually very polite and gave no hint that she thought she was dealing with pond-scum, and very kindly warned us that if he used his phone for data whilst roaming in Italy he would be paying through the nose (actually, "hideusement chèr" were her words), that he would be unable to top up his account outside France, and that he had nothing particular to do to activate the data part of the deal. So we thanked her obsequiously and bowed our way out of the shop, freeing her to go back to propping up a display case and for all I know watching cute cat videos.

Being as how the shop was on the place de l'hôtel de Ville we thought it would be a decently touristy thing to step into the palace of the old arch-bishops, and thence into the cathedrale St-Just itself: another huge building and personally I cannot get over how the stone is so massive and so delicate at the same time. Also, as Jon Lord once remarked, they have a massive organ.

They shooed us out as the clocks started striking twelve - never, of course, at the same time, that would be too much to ask for - but we must have left by the wrong door for when we got out onto the street the sky was gray and a playfully chilly breeze was pushing a few drops about, and by the time we made it to the gare there was a light drizzle falling and the clouds were the colour of lead. Sad to say Tom will have a long trip: the plan was to shove him on the Narbonne-Valence TGV at about midday, thence to Chambéry and from there another TGV through to Turin.

But it had not clicked in our tiny minds that it is the Christmas holidays after all, no room at the inn and all that is part of the tradition, and the TGV was booked solid. But the young woman at the desk with a Provençal accent you could chew on for hours thoughtfully proposed another itinerary - one not requiring reservations, one of the few inconvenients with the TGV - and lacking other options, we took it. It does involve getting him to Narbonne by 8am to catch the TER to Marseilles, and from there on he'll have to fend for himself getting to Nice, from there to Ventimiglia, and then on to Milan and, eventually, Turin. A fifteen-hour trip, all up. Always assuming, of course, that no inconsiderate bastard has the sheer bad manners to foul things up for everybody else by throwing themselves under a train, as they did that morning between Montpellier and Nîmes. That really screws up the timetables.

Never mind, not much to be done about it, and at least the English Shop was open as we headed back towards the canal and it started drizzling in earnest. So as the husband-and-wife team carried on munching on crusty baguette and pâté and cornichons I gathered up my suet and some Colmans mustard powder and some black treacle (because I'm sure it'll come in handy, maybe for the next ham I do) and a bottle of sherry ("Stay clear", said he, "of the QC stuff, it's crap. It'll do for cooking, or French housewives ...") so I made sure I picked up some Croft's and paid for that and then we headed back out into the rain, which was starting to get all petty and spiteful at that point, and back to the car, for I had an appointment with a cassoulet.

Because a few weeks ago I picked up a 2kg bag of haricots tarbais (the best kind, apparently), and there was bacon, and cuisses de canard confites in the freezer, and as I was going peacefully about my business at the market I somehow acquired, along with everything else, a large chunk of an excellent garlic sausage and some lamb breast, so it seemed only reasonable to put them all together to create what tinned baked beans can only dream from afar of becoming. In another life, perhaps.


  1. "an ancient charter, or something"
    Have you not come across the oeuvre of Robert Rankin? A treat awaits you.

  2. Oddly enough, Robert Rankin is not unknown to us. Started with The Antipope and moved on from there. Still all in the cardboard moving boxes at this point in time.