Monday, March 10, 2014

Curiously Attracted By The Soft Sweet Rosy Mounds ...

So it's that bloody moral imperative again: there I was, innocently going about my business at the market at Carcassonne and what should happen but I come across a stall offering 2kg plateaux of strawberries for the obscene price of only 4€. Under the circumstances, what is a man to do? I looked at them, and then I sniffed them long and hard (in fact I think I inspired one, probably stuck up behind the septum if the truth be told, I will find out if I start to smell of rotting fruit), and then I took them home. But it is Not My Fault! The flesh, I'm sad to say, is weak - the temptation too great - and there's the eternal triumph of hope over experience.

(Hope - and willing suspension of disbelief - whispering in my ear, telling me that just maybe Spanish strawberries, at this time of year, will indeed have some taste of strawberry to them: experience tugging at my sleeve to remind me of the last time I tried that. Whatever, cynical old experience is such a bore. Also, memory is short.)

I shan't bother asking you lot WTF to do with 1.5kg of leftover strawberries (for even with the best will in the world I can't eat that many in a sitting) as I know full well that you will just make smug remarks about jam, and how you're wallowing in a glut of the things, so I shall just have to think of dessert recipes involving fresh(ish) strawberry coulis. (Microwave + strawberries + obscene amounts of sugar = trouble-free coulis, yes! Too long in microwave = boiled-over burnt sticky bits, not so good and a bitch to clean.) Maybe something to do with a shortbread base and mascarpone ...

Once again the CNRS (the French mad-boffinry department, strictly civilian and not to be confused with DARPA, which tends to see the bleeding edge as a blunt instrument and have cornered the market on white Persian cats, bijou in-volcano villains' lairs and sharks with head-mounted lasers) are doing their best to bring on the rise of Skynet, with the request for tender "No 43705 : "Achat d'une main robotique dextre". Slyly stocking up on the equipment our future cybernetic overlord will need, if only to push the button marked "Global Thermonuclear War".

Anyway, despite it's being but the beginning of March (traditionally cold, wet and blustery) we have the bright blue Provençal sky that we read about in the brochures so kindly distributed by the Conseil Régional to those foolhardy enough to be thinking of coming to live in one of the places with the highest unemployment levels in France (apart from the Parisian banlieues, that is) and the temperatures are up in the twenties. Only just, I admit, but still one gets the feeling that An Effort Is Being Made.

So the almond trees are all in blossom too, and when I took Shaun off for a trot in the wilderness the other day, as we scrambled up one of the rocky outcrops which are what the landscape around these parts mostly consists of (split infinitive alert! To which I reply "Cobblers! No such bloody thing in the English language, not as she is spoke") we came across a stony south-east face covered with dwarf wild irises in bloom, lurking amongst the thyme and the rosemary.

And getting back to that willing suspension of disbelief, not-even spring vegetables, willingness to indulge in: I also found myself unable to resist the heaps of imperfect bright red tomatoes that looked as though they'd actually grown in a field somewhere, doubtless tilled by some authentic horny-handed son of the soil, the earth laboured with the generations-old cast-iron plough drawn by his faithful donkey, and the red soil enriched by the droppings of the aforementioned. (Actually, knowing peasants, probably both of them.) Rather than on a bed of cotton-wool, from which they drew their flavour, in an underground genetics lab somewhere in Holland.

Whether or not they had in fact been reared with love by some wise old peasant, living simply and in tune with the seasons, as his forefathers before him had done, I cannot say and in truth I rather doubt it: for one thing, such people are rare today, if only because of the difficulty of finding a mate in the wild. The EU, in belated recognition of this, has in fact started a program to have them located and, as a temporary measure, housed in zoos until a permanent solution can be found. (Had I mentioned that many zoos these days are under-funded, and that the tigers and such are on short rations? I think the solution may be there.)

But be that as it may, I came back with a couple of kilos of the little darlings and was not disappointed: they did indeed have that taste. A taste, anyway. So in a couple of weeks, when the temperatures are stable and up in the mid-30s (</sarcasm>) we shall be living on salads again.

That being said, I also picked up a bundle of wild asparagus on the same occasion. I was sad, for they were not what I had hoped for. Yeah, just the tips were fine - could've used them in an omelette to good effect, I suppose - but the rest was kind of like chewing barley grass stems. Unrewarding. I really ought to learn to be as picky about that sort of thing as I am with everything else at the market, and insist on prying into the bottom of the packet. Even if the hag behind the stall scowls at me. Hell, I prod aubergines.

(Now there's a thing. Before coming over here I would never have dreamt of poking and prodding my food before buying it. Just buy what there is, and be thankful for it. Kind of like Russia back in the days when a pair of left shoes was more or less standard. But after all these years in Ole Yurrup, I find I can no longer buy something that I can neither squeeze nor sniff. When clementine season comes around - it's gone now, if you ask me - I always grab one off the heap, peel it and eat it. And if not up to scratch, I go my merry way. Leaving behind a less-than-gruntled stallholder, but hey! - that's his problem. At least, unlike the old bags with their tow-along shopping trolleys, there is no actual malice involved.)

Mind you, I do not prod the meat and fish. If only for reasons of hygiene, also butchers and fishmongers tend to have really sharp knives, and have no scruples about using them. And I wish to keep my complement of fingers.

Whatever, is not a problem. I have any number of food guides wherein the well-intentioned authors let you in on their secret of buying good fish (or meat, or whatever): "look for bright, unsunken eyes, a firm body, and a clean scent of the sea", they say. (Which, apart from the scent of iodine - which would be unsettling in beef as well - could perfectly hold true for the working girls plying their trade on the nationale going in to Narbonne.)

It is not necessary to train your nose to a bloodhound's pitch, nor to spend hours on the innartoobz learning to differentiate between the bright shiny eyes of a live fish and the bright, sunken but still, to the novice, shiny eyes of a six-months dead one: the secret is much simpler and, generous creature that I am, I will give it to you free, gratis, and also for nothing.

Basically, you follow the old bags. Unpleasant and stingy as they are, as a general rule they have some idea as to quality (maybe one of the last generations in France to do so) and will, reluctantly, pay for it. So if you are looking for decent fish - or meat, or whatever - check out the stalls with lines of old bags queue-jumping, and haggling, and generally being unpleasant.

This is not to say that the other stands are unworthy of your attention. There's one to which I go at Narbonne who never seems to do any business but let's face it, I, and my meagre purchases once every couple of weeks, are hardly going to be keeping him out of bankruptcy court. He's short, spare, and taciturn, and I suspect that he does much of his business with professionals, who do not need a bedside manner. Which suits me down to the ground, at 10am I do not, I'm afraid, really want humorous banter.

Unless I can beat someone around the head with it, that is. Mind how you go, now.

1 comment:

  1. I shan't bother asking you lot WTF to do with 1.5kg of leftover strawberries

    No, go ahead! Ask us! I swear that the suggestions will not be obscene!