Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Nun's Tale ...

So I was sitting happily at my old desk up in Chambéry playing Freecell trying to work out why my RS-485 ports should not be working, when who should tap at the door but the weedy red-headed delivery guy? We greeted one another as long-lost friends, he offered me a coffee from the least disgusting of the vending machines, and talk turned - as it will and in fact invariably does - to cooking.

Somehow, it turned from the delights of cassoulet onto la cuisine moleculaire, and once we'd decided that a) you can't find a decent restaurant around Chambéry and b) all those with pretensions are, at best, merely competent, he went on to regale me with the tale of how once he went off to a restaurant managed by a friend of a friend up in the mountains above Grenoble for a twelve-course meal.

He was positively salivating as he described the sensation of eating the little billes of crystallised foie gras surrounding a heart of liquid foie gras - the crunch of biting down onto the hard shell and then the explosion of taste on the tongue - but he was only warming up for the trou normand, a variety of different lemon-flavoured mousses, essences and gels that came to the table set out as a platter of drug paraphernalia.

Oddly enough I mentioned this to Jeremy the next day, when he consented to have lunch with me, and he told me that he knew of the place: in fact, one of his friends from lycèe had worked there. Maybe I should try to get the name.

Our friend Mad Karen and her present husband Philippe have abandoned Mumblefuck and gone to live in a convent in Seyssel. I hasten to point out that the convent in question is not a going concern, for it would be unusual to have such a place accept Philippe even as a novice (or Mad Karen, come to that): rather, due to an absence of nuns it became surplus to the requirements of the Church, and they bought it. At long last, after a long and tortuous series of meetings and dealings with sordid bottom-feeding bankers, with the details of which I shall not bore you.

Seyssel is actually quite a nice little town on the old road through to Bellegarde and Nantua (you will recall that sauce Nantua, or any garnish with it in the name, refers to the fresh-water crayfish that have since disappeared, victims of over-fishing and pollution) built on both banks of the Rhône. As that used to be the frontier between France and Savoie, it thus has the particularity that the eastern part of the town is in Haute-Savoie, and the western part in the Ain (which is properly French, although the local accent is particularly impenetrable no matter what side of the river you find yourself on).

Anyway, the river runs through it and at one point back in the 1600s the Bernardine Order bought - or were given - some rich guy's place, latched onto most of the surrounding block of houses, and set up a convent. Which, due as I said to a lack of nuns, not to mention the Revolution, fell into desuetude ... whatever, Mad Karen and Philippe bought it.

Not the whole thing of course, that would have been prohibitively expensive, but they are now the proud owners of about 1000 m² on four levels, plus dépendances and maybe 800 m² of garden in the interior courtyard.

The courtyard had of course been left to its own devices over many years but after a bit of dedicated hacking and selective napalming you can see that the wood cyclamens are still there under the trees. I guess the main problem now is going to be getting rid of a couple of cubic metres of wood, given that there's no easy access, and certainly no way to get a rubbish skip in there: maybe they'll just have to befriend someone with a wood-chipper.

Preferably one that doesn't mind a bit of extra splatter when (sh)he's operating the machine, for Floyd The Psychopathic Terrier is unfortunately indiscriminate concerning the placement of bodily wastes. "I wouldn't step there ... " said Karen as I made my way about the cloisters, "oh, too late. Never mind, it'll probably wash out."

Rather to my surprise there's actually about 250 m² inside that are in fact habitable, even if the prior owner's taste in bathroom tiles was more than questionable. And the kitchen definitely needs a bit of work - like plumbing, for one thing - but it has a beautiful wooden floor. Although I can see it going down like a lead balloon with Health & Safety, maybe she should not look at doing table d'hôte.

Have I ever mentioned, by the way, that she's Italian? God, do they eat. When I turned up, about two, no way was I going to be allowed to escape without having a wodge of frittata, bread and cheese at the very least, and of course that needed to be washed down with wine.

Then there were mutual friends turning up for dinner, so around 6 I was banished to the kitchen to start a brace of chickens off slow-roasting (incidentally, one of the better ways of cooking the beast) with cherry tomatoes ... a good thing that Joc and Hervé brought dessert.

So their house is a big project - rather too much for us I'm afraid - but should ever it get finished it will be quite wonderful. And we will know people who actually live in a chateau, of sorts. Should ever they run short of cash I suppose they could always hock off a couple of the marvelous stone fireplaces, godnose they've enough to spare.

I headed back down home on Sunday with an unfortunately smug smile on my face once I'd got past Valence, which came from admiring the three blocked northward lanes for about 100 km. Then I got onto the A9 just before Orange, and my heart was still light for all was going swimmingly ... until I got to Montpellier.

Rather usefully, in these here parts the big overhead signs show an estimated trip time to the next few destinations, and as I got closer to the péage after Montpellier-Ouest I couldn't help but notice that they were advertising 2h30 to get to Narbonne: this is not good. Throwing caution to the winds and demonstrating, once again, the inevitable and tragic triumph of hope over experience, I got off whilst there was still time and headed onto the départementales towards Pézenas and Beziers - reasoning that it could hardly be worse.

Of course I was wrong. It's about 65 km to Beziers, all on narrow roads where there's sod-all chance of overtaking - of course man + dog had all had the same brilliant idea as I, and on top of it I had the good luck to wind up behind a white van man who hadn't read the manual, for his feeling seemed to be that 60 kph had been good enough for Jesus (I'm not sure in which of the Apocrypha this obscure factoid is mentioned, but what the hell), and it was certainly good enough for him.

I toyed with the idea of forcing him off onto the shoulder and eating his liver raw, but it came to me that if I did so I would be held up for another fifteen minutes and that sometimes one just has to ignore the siren call of instant gratification, and luckily a passing lane appeared at that point ... then I arrived at Montagnac. I guess that the traversée of the place is only about 2 km, but the mayor has apparently put his idiot nephew in charge of running the traffic lights - of which there are three, don't ask me why, I didn't do it - and it seems to be done with bits of string and, when all else fails, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

It only took about half an hour to get through there, and then I got to Pézenas which was mildly better, and a bit after that I ran out of road signs and everything conspired to push me onto the A75, which was at least heading roughly in the way I wanted to go ... and that was fine, and I got back onto the A9 which was all clear (probably because everyone had, like me, got off and were still desperately roaming the countryside, lost and destined to be eaten by the autochthones) and at Narbonne I got onto the A61 knowing full well that Lézignan is the first exit ...

My last chance to get off having disappeared, of course I came across another of those handy overhead signs that was advertising a ralentissement and about two hours to get to Carcassonne: one of those days when you really shouldn't have bothered getting out of bed.

I finally made it home by 21:00, only seven hours after I'd set out: still, the dogs were glad to see me.

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