Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Humble Spud ...

Now I is a happy man, for the facteur pulled up in his great throbbing yellow Kangoo, leapt from his seat, thrust a large package into the letterbox and was off again in a shower of shit and small stones before Shaun could get his wits together and bark. And sure enough, when with frenzied fingers I'd succeeded in demolishing multiple layers of packaging (sustaining only minor flesh wounds in the process), it was indeed the new cookbook I'd been waiting for.

I read his blog on a regular basis, as you may be aware, and when I discovered that David Lebovitz had come out with "My Paris Kitchen" I just could not resist, and even paid for a copy with my very own money. (Oddly enough, The Book Depository in the UK offer free world-wide shipping, and they were cheaper than Amazon by a good margin. Go figure.) Now my only challenge will be to take it slowly and savour a few pages every evening, rather than reading from whoa to go in one fell swoop.

Actually, when I say "my money" what I really mean is "the gubblemint's money", because it is theirs and they wish me to pay for the privilege of using it. Fair enough I suppose, they're the ones that printed it after all - they need to get a decent ROI for their shareholders. In fact, they wish me to pay for the privilege of getting old and still working, hoping that if ever I actually retire I shall keel over from a heart attack on receiving another letter asking for only 500 000€ for "les fonds de solidarité social" or whatever, or maybe a letter to the effect that they actually owe me 200 000€ which will be repaid in monthly installments of 10€ over some 1600 years, and then they will not have to pay me a pension. Although the Bank of Hell does accept good intentions.

But I digress. I had an inkling that there was a decent spare-rib recipe in there and so, as one will, I'd picked up a kilo of pork spare ribs at the Narbonne market on Saturday, just on the off-chance ... he reckons you should serve them with mashed potatoes but with all due respect he's wrong: baked potatoes, either with a very mustardy vinaigrette as they like it in Lyon, or with mustard butter, are essential. And salad - I like to make a honey vinaigrette and then mix in a good dollop of sour cream (if you've got the amounts right the vinegar will not curdle the cream, you'll just have to work it out for yourselves) and then sticking in some sweetcorn, sliced spring onions, chopped mint and maybe grated carrot and leaving that to marinate a bit before turning in the lettuce. A lazy man's slaw, I guess.

I also had a shoulder of lamb lurking in a fridge (yes, we have more than one, go complain if you like), so it seemed a reasonable idea to bone it, spread a mixture of breadcrumbs, garlic, fresh rosemary and grated parmesan over the flesh before rolling it, tying it neatly and roasting it. A bit much for just the two of us so we invited Richard and Mary, our Irish neighbours, around and it was very gratifying to see it disappear. Despite the humorous interval with the empty gas bottle halfway through cooking, fortunately we did have a spare and, exceptionally, it was not empty. A mistake I will not make again.

I know I mentioned that we have a new maire - we went to the inaugural pissup a while back for the free food'n'booze - and he seems determined to make his mark. Only two months or so into his reign term and we have already received two sternly worded letters on the mayoral stationery reminding us that a) it is forbidden to park in front of the rubbish bins, especially on those days when the dunnykin come past to empty them and b) dog-poo is a no-no.

And with a new mayor comes a new mayor's idiot nephew: I don't know if it's a job requirement nor, if so, in which way the causality operates. Two possibilities present themselves immediately to mind: either you have an idiot nephew and are thus fore-ordained to become a mayor, or if you are elected mayor and, for some reason beyond your control, you have no idiot nephew, one pops spontaneously into existence once the votes are totted up and you are found to have got in. Which could, I guess, be embarrassing.

Anyway, the municipal employee and he were out this moaning in the municipal utility vehicle (a tiny three-wheeled Piaggio of which the cabin is barely large enough to hold the employee, for he is of imposing stature: at least it has an engine, of sorts, and the employee is not obliged to pedal) - well, the employee was in the vehicle, and the idiot nephew was hanging on for grim life behind - doing one of those important jobs that need doing in small-town southern France: making sure that the village is gai by planting flowers in the municipal flower-pots.

So just one thing, the next time I head off to the market, a smile on my lips and a song in my heart - or just possibly an all-over scowl, depends on the weather - announcing my attention to buy "bio" vegetables, do me a favour? Distract me (possibly by pointing to pretty flowers, or a non-existent fighter jet scrambling overhead, or just sparkly! shiny! look! A SQUIRREL!), stun me (if required, and only with care, please), make sure you have one of those nice linen waistcoats that does up down the back to hand, and take me off to have my head examined.

Don't get me wrong, I am perfectly well aware that all vegetables are in fact "bio" because if they weren't biological we'd be eating rocks, now wouldn't we, and I know very few people that like to sit down to a plate of warmed-up schist. But just sometimes it's nice to get that warm fuzzy feeling of having saved the planet (from what is not clear, but probably irrelevant) when you go out and buy - let's say, potatoes -  from some honest horny-handed son of the soil whose idea of pesticide is a good piss.

Getting back to the potatoes - we are, I think, in agreement that the best bits are just under the skin, and that too is where the eventual toxins (from the DDT, Agent Orange, arsenic, genetically-engineered nanobots, sperm whales - are you listening? - and cadmium cocktails that Big Agribusiness likes to spray on the leaves to kill unicorns and make small children cry because there are no fairies left anymore) are going to be, and so it would follow that if I shave a half-inch off the exterior of each and every humble spud I prepare, then I am safe. Vitamin-free, but unpoisoned. Although possibly at risk from a falling sperm whale.

Given that my bio potatoes have been pissed on (but only under a full moon) to disturb the nesting codling moth - or whatever, and what about them, anyway? Don't they have a right to live? - it would seem prudent to wash them, at the least. But sadly, as their homeopathic pesticidal treatments are about as efficacious as scrubbing lepers with acne cream, I wind up taking an inch off the outside, just to make sure that our mashed spuds, chips or whatever are not going to be full of black spot, grey rot, and brown mould.

I would like to do the right thing, really I would, but if I have to make the choice between paying three times the price for bio vegetables, half of which I have to chuck away because they're either rotten or full of weevils or something (and then I feel even guiltier because I know that starving children in Korea or Chicago would really love that extra protein, and I am putting it in the bin), and buying something much cheaper that I can actually eat, I know what I will do.

You're quite right, I was planning on doing myself a plate of steak-frites for dinner tonight. However did you guess?

But let it be said that the combination of frites cooked in duck fat with a bit of sea salt, fresh thyme and paprika (at the last minute, that - tis a delicate spice, don't want to burn it) and a slab of hampe chucked in for three minutes a side before serving with beurre à la moutarde is pretty damn good. And, of course, makes a pleasant change from all that Gordon Blue cuisine what we is usually eating around here.

Anyway, just at the moment I have a dog insistently thrusting a slobbery tennis ball into my crotch, so I know what I have to do. Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Veni, Edi, Discessi ...

... came, ate and buggered off. Old Jules, despite his undoubted talent for turning a Latin phrase, was writing in simpler times, and I guess didn't have people turning up unexpectedly at his doorstep.

Anyway, I find the yoof of today undemanding, and rather rewarding, when it comes to the food department. It fair warmed the cockles (St-Jacques, as it happens) of my cynical old heart to see how rapidly it all disappeared - yea, even unto the bretonne aux fraises  that followed the cheese - and I'll spare you the comments, lest you think they've gone to my head. But I did find the sight of all three of them getting out their cameras to take photos of the food before they ate to be somewhat - alarming.

The next morning (given the hour, only nominally so) after they'd devastated the cereal and laid waste to the jam, we managed to stuff them and their backpacks back into little Suzy and Margo pootled off to decant them at Narbonne, from whence the day's plan was to hitch down to Barcelona before heading to points even further South. Hope they make it to Marrakesh for the big party on the 23rd.

I remember reading an article in The Register by Alastair Dabbs, the gist of which was that he couldn't work out why it was that mentioning that you're in IT seems to make you irresistible at parties. Women still avoided him like a six-months-dead otter with psoriasis, but males he'd never met would come up unasked and engage him in serious conversation about the merits of this that or the other hard drive, which would inevitably lead to the confession that their PC was running rather slowly and did he think he could spare a moment to come look at it?

I only mention this because it is in fact true, and I would seriously recommend that anyone thinking of a career in IT forget about it and become a trainee sewer inspector or something or, if you absolutely have to do it, make sure no-one ever finds out. If you are planning on having a normal social life, anyway. Kevin has said that much the same phenomenon occurs to electricians as well: he might be at a party with Janet, hobnobbing with the academic crowd, and then somewhere off in a corner someone whispers that Dr. Soler's husband is an electrician and suddenly he's the centre of attention.

The Dean of Education hangs on his every word, senior lecturers fawn at his feet, and elegant faculty wives invite him around for the afternoon, when they excuse themselves for only being able to offer him whisky but every time they plug the kettle in to make tea the fuses blow all over the house ...

I suppose there must be some professions where supply is sufficiently ample that people are prepared to consider paying for their services, but electricians in England are apparently rare enough that if you manage to lay your hands on one you don't let the opportunity slip through your grasp, and so it is with computer people. Just admit that you know something about it and you are promoted on the spot to tech support for friends and family (if you weren't already - I said to make sure no-one ever finds out, just lie to them, say you've given up your university studies to go on the game) and most of the neighbourhood.

The point I was getting to here was that old Neville around the corner picked himself up a PC for 80€ at Emmaus the other day, and was having one or two little problems with it ...

So I turned up one afternoon with a couple of Homeplug adapters so that he could at least get on to the internet without stringing 30 metres of CAT-5 cable between the ground floor where the Livebox is and under the eaves where he's built himself a very neat, tidy office.

Which is where the first hiccup occurred: their twisted little house has two entirely separate power circuits, one for the ground floor and the other for everywhere else. So much for the easy connectivity solution: I told him to go off and buy a USB Wifi dongle and read the manual.

And he did, and got it installed and working and everything, no small feat considering that he's in his seventies, speaks sod-all French (although trying his hardest to learn), and was doing all this on a PC with the French version of Windows 7 installed.

Too good to be true, of course, and it wasn't long before he was back with a tale of woe, and how slowly the PC was running. Having better things to do, and being of a naturally kindly disposition, I headed round again to take a look at the pestilential thing. Fairly quickly it became evident that this was not going to be a simple five-minute in-and-out job, so I grabbed the box and took it home.

Oddly enough, as I sat there waiting for it to boot I could not but notice that the boot logo was a Compaq one. Anyone else remember them? I thought they got borged by HP back in 2002, but I guess they must have kept the name going - out of respect for the dead, maybe.

Around midnight I finally worked things out, more or less: the thing hadn't been used for some time, a backlog of Microsoft updates had built up which needed to be loaded and installed, and one of them seemed to have gone into an endless download/update/fail loop, and the update task was eating about 90% of the CPU time, and all the band-width.

Luckily, fixing that was fairly straightforward and whilst I was at it - told you I was sweet-natured - and as the previous owners had paid through the nose for a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, I set it up in English. Which means that the next time Neville has a problem - and I fully expect he will - he will at least be able to tell me what it is.

You know, the life of a tech-support person is not really that sexy: in fact, re-reading that lot it looks, even to me, to be rather boring. I cannot see why we're so popular at parties, it can't be because of being good in bed.

One of life's little mysteries - why are animals so gross? Came down the other morning and went out onto the terrace (nearly all tiled now! Yay!) to enjoy the first coffee of the day in the warm sunlight, and Shaun scurried furtively off into a corner with what looked suspiciously like a bird's wing waggling out of one side of his mouth.

When I finally convinced him that it would be a Good Idea to spit it out it became evident that the poor beast had not been of this world for some time: I can only assume that the cats had been out foraging earlier and, coming upon this mummified carcase, had brought it back as a special treat.

Very thoughtful of them, I will admit, but I could wish that they had not done so. Disposing of surplus-to-requirements fleshy envelopes is not really part of my job description, and even if it were I would much rather not have to do it before I'm set up for the day.

I recently came across a marvelously simple recipe from the excellent Jacques Pépin (a French chef who is, incidentally, virtually unknown in France but very popular in the US, and whose two primers on cooking - La Technique and La Methode - are amongst the very first cookbooks I ever bought) with a new take on saucisson. Why, he reasoned, do I take all the trouble of mincing fat and meat and salt and stuffing that into sausage casings when, with much less effort, I can simply and rapidly brine a whole pork fillet and hang that to dry?

And as it is - according to tradition, or an old charter or something - a grey rainy Easter Sunday over in these here parts, and as I happen to have a couple of excellent pork fillets on my hands (don't know why, but Lidyl - a German hard-discount chain - has splendid meat. I wouldn't touch their vegetables with a barge-pole, but the meat - and the butter, and the bûche de chèvre - is above reproach.) I have just, following his instructions, trimmed them, rubbed them well with a cup of gros sel mixed with 2tbsp of brown sugar and a bit of saltpetre, and put them in the fridge.

The saltpetre is optional, and only toxic in large doses, but it does mean that the meat keeps a lovely bright rosy colour. If you happen to be able to get sodium nitrite use that instead - about 6% by weight - or just use pink curing salt if you can get that.

Anyway, tomorrow I shall take them out, dry them, and rub them with a bit of cognac, cracked black peppers and some herbes de provence before wrapping them and hanging them somewhere cool and airy to dry for four or five weeks. I'll let you know how that turns out.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How Hard Can It Be?

I always look forward to April Fool's Day here at The Shamblings. Although sometimes it can be difficult to work out just who the joke is on. Usually, I guess, it's on me.

Anyway, the more alert of you - those who've had their morning coffee - may have noticed a brief hiatus. This is nothing sinister, just due to the fact that once again I headed off to Chambéry for a week's worth of working, and for once that meant exactly that - sod-all spare time for anything else.

The general idea was to recuperate Jeremy, the eldest son, and bring him down here for a few days: he actually had a week's holiday, and has never even seen the place, so it seemed a reasonable concept. The idea was simple, as always: reality tends to be messier. He went off to a party on Saturday, ETA chez lui sometime Sunday afternoon, so we arranged to meet up there at 16:00 before heading back down.

Let it be admitted, I was late - all of fifteen minutes late. No sign of life, I rang and I wandered around Montmélian until I was thoroughly bored and still no Jeremy. Two and a half hours and five calls going straight to voice-mail later I decided to call it a day, but for some reason as I was heading down the hill towards the autoroute I gave one last call. "Oh fuck" squawked my phone, as the son awoke.

Only fallen asleep on his sofa, hadn't he? Margo had suggested that I count to ten and take a couple of deep breaths and it worked because four hours later (admittedly, three hours later than planned, which kind of screwed my ideas for dinner) we were home, without mayhem being committed. Mind you, we're neither of us great ones for chatting in the car, which probably helps under such circumstances.

On the bright side, I had at least gone round on Saturday and we'd loaded the oven hood from St-Pierre (which, for some reason as yet unknown to me, had wound up at his place - go figure) into the boot of the car on the grounds that it might eventually turn out to be useful (we'll see about that one) and there was also a good kilo of decent Beaufort lurking in a chilly bag, awaiting its imminent date with destiny.

For Jeremy, you see, has realised that good cheese Costs Money, which he would rather put to other purposes, such as the purchase of mildly illegal mind-altering drugs, and so he no longer falls, like a wolf on the fold (although, to be fair, rarely have I seen him gleaming, whether it be in purple and gold or anything else) upon the cheese in the fridge, for there is none in his apartment. Cheese, that is, for a fridge there is: I know it well, it must be twenty years old or so and once adorned our cellar in St. Pierre, relegated to the noble calling of keeping copious amounts of wine and beer at a reasonable temperature. And it still does sterling service, even though in its dotage the temperature regulation is a bit iffy, so things are either tepid or half-frozen, but given what Jeremy keeps in it this is not really a problem.

Whatever, we finally left around 18:30 and I was starting to feel a bit peckish when I pulled in to the service station at Mornas, so it was a shame that when, having fed Suzy, I went off to do the same for myself, I discovered that the decent-ish sandwich joint was closed (it was, I admit, Sunday, but even so ...) and that my options were to buy a sorry-looking Vienna roll enclosing a bit of limp lettuce and sad watery ham all wrapped up in cellophane, or to go hungry. I have learnt my lesson, sometimes Experience manages to stop Hope getting up with the simple expedient of a quick kick to his balls, and we carried on.

At Tavel even the coffee bar was closed, so I got a watery café americain from the vending machine out back, promptly wished I hadn't, and drove off into the night. Fortunately at that point we weren't too far from home, and when we arrived Jeremy spared five minutes to make the acquaintance of the dog before retiring to the kitchen, where he appropriated our solitary baguette and set about some serious work with butter and cheese.

It is sad but true that this is that awful season where we have but limited choice in fruit and vegetables: right now, for instance, we are more or less obliged to subsist on asparagus and strawberries. It is hard, but we force ourselves, for one has to eat. To add to my misery I had to go off to the supermarket this moaning - happily, there is one open at Lézignan on a Sunday - to get food for five, as we got a phone call last evening from a niece to say that she and friends were hitch-hiking to Morocco and could they stay the next night? (Assuming, of course, that they manage to get from Bordeaux to Carcassonne.)

Now not only have they reorganised the Intermarché there, so that things are no longer where they once were AND none of the helpful signs that hang from the ceiling indicating the contents of the aisle actually correspond anymore to what you will in fact find down there - and come to that the price tags are more or less random as well - it is barbecue season and they have cut back on their meat selection so my vague plan of a leg of lamb went out the metaphorical window and I was forced - forced, I tell you! - to buy some coquilles St-Jacques instead. Hope no-one's allergic to the little sweeties.

And as I was swallowing my disappointment at life's little cruelties and getting ready to pull out and drive back home I found myself with an unexpected ten minutes of time to dedicate to further contemplation, as about a hundred or so OAPs turned up on their shiny throbbing Harleys to fill their tanks, paralysing the parking lot.

(Yer French bikies are not the fearsome crew that you lot tend to get, and I suspect that their only ties to the drug trade are in the form of purchase of industrial-scale amounts of Viagra and haemorrhoïd cream. The only ones who can possibly afford to buy - and to run - a Harley are those with large amounts of disposable income, which pretty much rules out anyone under the age of 65. Sometimes it brings to mind that Python sketch, with the evil grannies.)

Be that as it may, nothing too depressing that it couldn't be cured by sitting out in the sun on the terrace for a bit, wistfully imagining what it will look like on the day it is actually finished and has real tiles on it and everything. (For at the moment, although it is now waterproof so that even if it does rain heavily we will not be able to take showers in the garage underneath, there are only two lines of tiles down because Cédric turned up yesterday afternoon to get started on that. Maybe for next weekend ...)

Around the church, the little place next to us where the yoof of the village tend to hang out during those long sunny evenings of the summer holidays is littered with sticks. Crows are lousy architects and worse builders, and given that they apparently think that a beakful of two-foot sticks, some of them with the original thorns still on them, make a good nest I'm rather surprised that the species is still a going concern.

Or maybe it's just the male of the corvidae that labours under this impression, and in his eagerness to woo (and get around to doing the fun parts of reproduction) thinks that quantity rather than quality will do the trick: what we find on the ground are the results of careful selection by Mrs Crow, who sees little point to brooding with an acacia thorn up the jacksie.

Anyway, I shall make a gigantic leap of faith here and believe that these young persons are really going to turn up some time in the more or less immediate future, which means that I really ought to head off into the kitchen and start work on a few minor trifles, such things as might help stave off imminent death by starvation. Mind how you go, now.