Sunday, January 19, 2014

Like Cats And Dogs ...

As is so often the case, we open with a Health & Safety advisory: do not, I repeat not, use WWII era canned food. Not that there's anything wrong with it, given that it may have been sterilised in the afterglow from Hiroshima it's guaranteed germ-free, but it may contain surprises. Case in point: it came into what I may loosely call my mind the other night to make a quick dinner - crab and sweetcorn fritters.

Which are normally quite safe and only rarely explosive (and then only if you get the amount of nitroglycerine wrong): you take half a tin of sweetcorn and stick it in the blender along with four tbsp of flour, salt, an egg, some chopped spring onion and as much cayenne pepper as you happen to feel like, and whizz the lot into a thick batter. Then you stir in the rest of the sweetcorn, a tin of crab-meat (such as you will have lying around in the pantry somewhere) and some more thinly-sliced spring onion, before making little balls and deep-frying them.

And that was where it went titsup for me: one of those little balls apparently had live ammunition in it and exploded as I was turning it, which meant a healthy dose of oil at 250° flying up and spattering over the palm of my hand. Left hand, luckily, so I can still look at porn on the innertubes, but it hurt like hell and I spent the rest of the evening clutching a frozen bottle of water.

So let that be a warning to you. I would also recommend wearing safety goggles when deep-frying, were it not that seeing the cook in full hazmat kit does rather tend to put guests off their feed.

Whatever, I was roused from my torpor in front of the screen by a godawful racket in the sitting room, and lurched in to be greeted by a scene of domestic bliss and tranquility all-too rare around The Shamblings. Primary Systems Cat was seated on a chair, watching benignly as Shaun rolled yelping with pain on the floor, Emergency Backup Kitten apparently surgically grafted onto his muzzle. EBK was afraid to let go, and with four sets of needle-sharp claws planted in his nose Shaun was probably not really thinking at 100% of his admittedly limited capacity ... so we separated them, the kitten bolted upstairs and Shaun licked his wounds.

A funny thing, but since then he's seemed far less inclined to go in for Boisterous Play than he used to be. It may not last, but a bit of healthy respect for cats' abilities in the mayhem department would do him no harm.

Anyway, what is it with these people? What makes them think that Spring is here already? There are no buds, no flowers, the branches are bare, but already the bloody cyclists are out, lycra-clad and puffing along uncertainly down the back roads. And they tend to go in packs of forty or so, six abreast and seven or eight deep, so that they can chat happily amongst themselves and incidentally block the lane. It's worse than having an Aixam or a flock of Dutch camper-vans in front. I suppose it's Mother Nature's way of improving the species, or something, because the inexorable invisible hand will get them. Or if ever Adam Smith fails, there's always the front-mounted rocket-launchers that came as optional equipment with the car.

On the other hand, and always looking on the bright side, at least the road-kill will be healthy (apart from the small matter of being dead) and in good shape when it comes time to put it in the pot. (For boiling, I think. Too stringy to roast.) What? You leave run-over game on the tarmac?

So Margo was telling me about the time when she had to get some information about setting up a small business and she went in to see officialdom, as one does, and she happened to ask - I don't know how it came up - "just what is the weirdest one you've had?". The woman looked around, closed the door, and confessed that it was this guy who'd invented a set-top box to detect aliens. Despite not being a Canadian politician he was convinced that they are amongst us, and his box would bleep if one came in the door.

He had the circuit diagrams and everything, and just wanted seed money from the government to develop the product. Seems he was saddened when this did not arrive, but that just goes to show that his paranoia was internally inconsistent. I do not know how he failed to work out that if the aliens are here then they own the government, and are hardly likely to want attention drawn to them by little boxes going "Bleep!". Makes one conspicuous. Buy tinfoil hat.

(Of course, there are other ways to be conspicuous. If, for instance, you are a serving French president, you can go off to see your mistress on the back of a scooter driven by a member of your security detachment. You are likely to be noticed for the simple reason that your scooter will be the only one obeying traffic regulations.)

Why, oh Lord? The Great Google tells me that one search term, and one only, lead people here last week, and it was "girdle for fallen bladder". Have you ever noticed me writing about girdles, or bladders - fallen or otherwise? Incidentally, how does a bladder fall? I mean, it's not as though it's likely to trip over or something, or jump out a window. Not without its fleshy envelope anyway, in which case the actual bladder would probably be the least of one's worries.

And even if we're speaking in the religious/moral sense, of a fall from grace, I remain to be convinced that a bladder can actually be said to be in a state of grace in the first place, in which case it can hardly be said to fall from that state, now can it? Not as though there's some cheeky serpent with an apple wandering around the small intestines, going from duodenum to pancreas trying to tempt various under-esteemed organs (liver and lights, as they're known in the trade - the unmentionables). Not in my abdomen there's not, at any rate.

After a three-week hiatus before and after Christmas the workmen have turned up again, and things are going on apace. It's almost possible to believe that we'll be migrating to the top floor sometime mid-February, while they're gutting the first floor.

Very cunningly, I headed off to Chambéry last week, this being when they turned the heating off so as to be able to shift the boiler a couple of metres to the west. This is not because of feng shui, just because we thought it would be rather a good idea to have it lurking in its own little - sound-proofed - utility cupboard with the 150l hot-water cylinder (which has yet to be hooked up - suppose that'll mean they'll be turning the heating off again and this time I will be here, woe is me!) rather than invading our living space.

Also, when I arrived back at Narbonne I found that I was sharing the back of the car with a brand-new Bosch low-pressure spray-gun and a Bosch angle-grinder, equally new. Not to mention a tungsten blade for the grinder, so as to be able to use it to cut tiles. For this is what it is going to come to in the near future: there are tiles on half the floor of what will become our bathroom, and rather than pay Cédric 500€ to lay a thin cement chape over the lot to level it out, I shall spend some quality time with the big jack-hammer drill.

And we shall have to go get some parquet flottant, and some jute matting for the bathrooms, and pick out tiles for the showers, and then there's always the vexed question of paint. But one thing at a time, I guess.

In any case, I am going to wrap this up: EBK is getting too close to the keyboard for comfort. Although he does not yet know it, he's going off tomorrow to get his balls ablated, which means that as of a couple of hours ago he has no food, which means a very vocal, very affectionate and particularly blundering kitten.

Which is fine so long as he sticks to floor level, but when he decides to explore my desk I do rather draw the line.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Question Of Ethics ...

Now it has been drawn to my attention that some people disagree, on moral grounds, with the very concept of foie gras. I am not going to argue with this, I shall just lean back in the armchair, smile faintly but smugly and shut up, and let them go argue the toss with a French-thing. (I learnt, long ago, to do this at the dinner table - only the armchair there was metaphorical because who has dinner seated in an armchair? - in order to avoid the bloodshed and enjoy the spectacle as the right-wing and the left-wing of the extended family drew knives over the vexed question of whether the rich should be taxed at 95%, or just sent to the guillotine and then taxed at 100%. Never did settle that one satisfactorily, but at least everyone escaped with only light flesh wounds.)

Anyway, the inevitable ensuing argument will be fun to watch because the Frog-person in question, feeling unfairly put-upon and persecuted by Anglo-Saxonality, will bring up fox-hunting as a counter-example. And if you let that one in through the doors, you are lost. That way lies madness.

"For", he will say, "you tell me that the gavage of innocent little furry ducks that go coin-coin* is cruel, what then do you say of the chasing of a poor renard, which you English lords do every day before breakfast?" (The French have some odd ideas about daily life in that green and pleasant - or unpleasantly green - land. For instance, les rosbifs, when not hunting foxes, are eating porridge. Which may or may not be deep-fried. The English have equally odd ideas about the French lifestyle: it seems to be a given that all parisiennes are mind-bogglingly beautiful, and that all men have at least three mistresses, and a beret. To my certain knowledge, the first concept at least is totally baseless, and in these hard economic times supporting four ménages is a luxury that few can afford. Although berets are cheap, but also totally out of fashion.)

It is true that the duck, once past its salad days of wandering freely and fornicating at will in the dusty forecourt, is stuffed each day until its death (quite possibly from heart failure) with golden grain, whilst the fox - if things go according to plan (not necessarily, let's be quite clear on this, the foxes' plan) - gets chased only once in its life.

But no-one, to my knowledge, has interrogated the ducks on the matter - nor the foxes, come to that, who would probably rather be eating duck - and it could well be that they actually appreciate the attention. And in any case, I personally would much rather eat duck than fox, recipes for renard looking as they do suspiciously like those for pukeko stew**. Only with more wine.

Also, it is true that the modern urban French are just as clueless as to where meat ultimately comes from, and as sentimental, as any other city-dweller (maybe that's why horse-meat consumption has plummeted over the last thirty years, as the generation that felt good about eating My Little Pony dies off), but if you scratch an urban Frenchman you'll find a peasant underneath, and those things are notoriously unromantic. And when something tastes as good as foie gras, decently prepared, principles tend to go to the wind.

Maybe my ethics are questionable, but at least I recognise that what I eat is dead animals, and as for the vegans - how do they sleep at night, knowing the torture that is inflicted on their behalf on innocent grains and vegetables? Can you not hear them scream as they're ripped from Mother Gaia's soil? Will no-one think of the children?

(Let it be said too that foxes are vile disease-ridden rodents that are nowhere near as cunning as it's said in their publicity handouts. Don't feel sorry for the little bastards, you'll only regret it later when they rip your throat out in your sleep.)

Whatever, I guess that some of you may have been sleeping under a rock for some time, or maybe it's just that you live in Upside-Down Land or one of the old penal colonies and thus are not privileged, as are we Yurrupians, to know of Stephen Fry, Britain's National Treasure™ and definitive thespian. The Register used to have a regular Fryday, featuring such gems as this and this, and also this, which go some way to explaining the esteem in which all right-thinking people hold the Luvvie-In-Chief. But that is not the point. It's just a bit of background, to explain why I snorted coffee out my nostrils this morning when I read Old Key's Almanacke prediction for November 2014: "The iFry is launched, a simulacrum of Stephen Fry that witters incessantly and is small enough to be tossed into a wastepaper basket."

In other news, kittens bounce. Backup cat was feeling adventurous the other day, picking his way delicately along the top of the barrier around the terrace, and eventually came to the vertical wall at one end and thought he'd jump up. See kitty jump! Watch as he scrabbles to the sheer concrete with little claws! Gasp! as he goes "plop" onto the street three metres down. About 30 seconds later he'd rushed around the house, jumped up another vertical wall and thence onto the roof and back down to the terrace. Hardly limps a bit, but seems a bit warier now.

I honestly do not know how I managed to escape alive from Carcassonne this morning. As is my wont I headed off to the market - a bit later than originally planned, for I had to intervene when I discovered Margo trying to throttle her computer but that's neither here nor there - and visited the usual suspects, and as I had to stop off at a supermarket on the way back home anyway, to pick up some small preserving jars for the foie gras that is even now macerating in sherry, I thought I might as well make a brief call to a place that Margo had pointed out on more than one occasion.

It is called "Discount Alimentaire" and I kind of expected it to be, like many of these hard discount warehouses, a place where you had odds'n'sods of end-of-stock items, or the last three palettes of duck gumbo that Carrefour couldn't push out the door. Unbelievable "bargains" that you know you'll never find again, barring exceptional circumstances. As it happened, I was wrong not totally correct.

Half the barn-like interior was taken up with fresh fruit and vegetables - now some of those, I will admit, looked as though they'd seen better days but others were fine: just have to be picky, I guess. The far end was the butcher's stand, along twelve metres or so, with a real butcher behind it, and I shall have to go back some time when I really need meat because it would be criminal to pass up a nicely marbled côte de boeuf at 13€/kg, or a shoulder of lamb at 9€/kg. Being halal I doubt I'm going to find pork there in the near future, but I can live with that.

But what really turned me on were the aisles in the centre, laden left and right with herbs and spices and dried fruit and sauces and godnose what else. Now I know where to go if I wish to buy some za'atar, or spices for keuftes, or dried hibiscus flowers. Or a kilo bag of Madras curry, come to that, although that's unlikely because I'd have difficulty getting rid of all that in six months and I will not have stale spices around the kitchen.

Thought I did really rather well to finally make it out with so little: some tortilla wrappers, filo pastry, toasted sesame seeds, mixed grains to go into some bread, some more orange essence and a kilo of powdered almonds. (For it is time right now for the galette des rois, and both of these last are essential if you want to fill one with a properly fragrant frangipane cream, redolent of oranges and butter.) So I was quite pleased with myself. But I will go back, next time with a decently capacious shopping basket. And maybe a gastronomic dictionary.

Anyway, I have those two livers to see to, and four large plump mushrooms to be stuffed with herbed pork mince before going into the oven - and I suppose that the puff pastry is not going to make itself. So I had better get into the kitchen, and make myself busy. Mind how you go.

*French ducks - those raised for their livers at least - are an odd breed with a cleft palette and prolapsed anus, and consequently incapable of going "quack" as God intended. They make a noise transcribed phonetically as "coin", which sounds like a whoopee cushion deflating under an elephant. Or a noisy liquid fart, on a kazoo.

**For our foreign readers - a NooZild delicacy, equivalent of the famous French pot au feu, in which a stringy, muscular, and particularly rancid waterfowl (the "pukeko" in question) is stewed for days in a cauldron with stones: granite and schist are considered indispensable, and a few lumps of quartz are held to add flavour. When tender the bird is removed and disposed of with extreme prejudice: the cooking liquid is served as a soup; the rocks are carved at table and, garnished with pebbles, make a satisfying, if somewhat heavy, main dish for a festive occasion. Vegetables are considered superfluous. Oddly enough, a cheap retsina accompanies the meal to perfection: paint-stripper makes an adequate substitute.