Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Quiet Day Out ...

It comes to my mind - such as it is - that you may be unaware of the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year*. So, in keeping with the mission statement of this blog ("Rubbing your face in shit you didn't want to know", amongst other things), I would like to inform you of this year's winners:

Third place-getter, The Origin of Feces. A round of applause, please, for David Waltner-Toews for this fascinating Darwinian introduction to the wonderful world of crap. Suitable for children.

Second place goes to Are Trout South African? by Duncan Brown, a mesmerising story of love and fishing on the veldt.

And a ponderous drum-roll please for the happy winners, Mats & Enzo, co-authors of How To Poo On A Date. A useful self-help guide to those delicate moments. Which is bound to come in useful at some point.

More importantly, the electricians have been and done their stuff and gone: the top floor has cables hanging everywhere like long gray wrinkly house-worms, so Cédric and Alain can get back to work up there. Being as what the occasional and unforeseeable showers that are on the menu right now in these parts make laying the concrete on the terrace a bit of a risky business.

Anyway, in keeping with the general idea that we ought to get out more, decided to head through to Beziers for the market this morning. That may have been a mistake.

Now don't get me wrong, Beziers is a nice old city, even if its inhabitants do have the misfortune to call themselves biterrois (which, to my ear at least, sounds vaguely obscene - helps if you know what the word bite** means in French, I admit) but ...

We found our way, unimpeded by the GPS of Doom (for we had cruelly turned it off) to place Jean Jaurès in the middle of town, where - according to the guidebooks, anyway - the "vibrant, bustling" market was to be found. There was one stall, with a few manky fruit and veg on display: I had to admit that I was underwhelmed. So we headed vaguely north, to what looked as though it might just possibly turn out to be les Halles, but it turned out to be the theatre instead, to my considerable disappointment.

Never mind, there'd been a sign a way back pointing off in the direction of the Office de Tourisme, so we duly turned south for a bit and followed the trail of breadcrumbs until we came to the place: which was, naturally enough, closed. Still, there was a sign up on the door with instructions on how to get to the other branch, so back north we went.

This time, by dint of persistence, we actually came across les Halles, with a little marché des paysans off to one side, which seemed promising. Sadly, by 11am most of the paysans seemed to have sold their entire stock, and what was left looked to me as though it was still there for very good reasons.

So I wrote that one off and went into the actual building which - from the outside at least - looked promising. Typical belle époque style, all wrought iron and ceramic tiles and skylights: unfortunately the inside was pretty much deserted.

Which made me sad, all over again. Still, there were a few vegetables that didn't look any the worse for wear for falling off the back of a lorry, and in any case one has to eat something, so I shoved a few articles into the shopping basket I'd so hopefully brought with me and we went about our way, trying to find where we'd hidden the car so that I'd be slightly less encumbered.

Felt better with only a man-bag and the camera, and we boldly set off in search of our dose of kulcha for the day: another bloody cathedral, to wit the Cathedrale St-Nazaire which is, as any fule kno, built on the site of the Romanesque church which got burnt to the ground when the Crusaders sacked the place in 1209. Apparently Simon de Montfort was having another bad day that year.

Seems that the papal legate was not really in a better mood when he ordered the entire population, Catholics and Cathars alike, to be slaughtered in the church in which they'd taken refuge: in his considered opinion, "God will recognise his own". Things were simpler then, none of these pesky moral conundrums.

As usual, the place was closed. Well, the cloisters were open, and the jardin des évèques which does, I admit, have a remarkable view out over the river (and is also remarkably well-ventilated by the prevailing wind, I might add) but the doors to the church remained obstinately bolted.

A shame, for I felt a pressing urge to pray and have my multitudinous sins pardoned, also the rose window looked rather nice from outside, but too bad, I shall just have to muddle on in sin.

And there's the thing, the cathedral was closed, and so were half the shops we walked past. I guess one in four on the main streets, and let's not go into the sad state of affairs in the ruelles and the alleys. Hell, even the options for eating were kind of limited, unless your tastes run to an exclusive diet of kebab'n'chips.

Also, there seemed to be sod-all people around. I mean, compared to Carcassonne or Narbonne which always seem thronged, the place was empty. Especially for a fine sunny Saturday.

Still, by dint of sheer bloody-minded persistence and a refusal to eat a kebab (don't get me wrong here, I like a kebab as much as the next man, but there are times when that just won't do) we found a restaurant that looked like it might be open, wandered in and were invited to plonk our arses at a table in the sun streaming through the windows off the courtyard.

(It was also as far as possible from the fire burning in the huge old hearth, which I'm kind of guessing they actually still used for doing grillades and such-like, when custom merited it. And a damn good thing too, otherwise I'd have melted down into a puddle of grease.)

For they too were not exactly run off their feet: there were four people, us included, in there for lunch, in a place that could easily have seated sixty.

But mustn't complain, at least that meant that the service was good, and I had an excellent steak with grilled polenta whilst Margo satisfied herself with a thick slice of steamed cod on a rice timbale, with a purée des poivrons on the side. Followed, I'd like to say, by a profiterole that I can only qualify as frikkin' enormous.

Washed down with a bottle of Corbières it made for a very pleasant meal, and quite frankly I don't really like eating in crowded restaurants anyway. Too noisy, and there's always some arsehole with an amusing ring-tone on his - or often, her - bloody cellphone.

So that was Beziers. I could doubtless spend hours wandering around the place, camera in hand and poking my nose into all its crooks and nannies, but the overwhelming impression is of a place that's dying. Or at least, one that has seen much better days.

Which is, incidentally and quite accidentally, totally true. Back in the glory days, when Ricquet built the canal du Midi (with his own money, yet - well, maybe not quite his own, technically speaking, he made his fortune as a tax farmer after all) the place was filthy rich. And of course it was the centre of spline production: artisanal at first, before the big factories were built. They're all shuttered now - demand has dropped, and the Chinese can turn them out cheaper - but there's still the "Hotel Imperator" bearing witness to turn of the century grandeur.

But that kind of faded, as the economic importance of the canal dwindled, and now it's slowly going to sleep in the sun, with the paint flaking on the shutters. I guess there could be worse ways to go.

And just saying, but sometimes I really do feel that people should run their ad copy past someone else before they go run with it and have posters stuck up and everything.

*Credit where it's due, to the usual suspects.
** So a dick, despite being eminently masculine last time I bothered to check, is a feminine noun - "une bite", whereas we have "le vagin". Go figure, it's beyond me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nids de Poule, En Formation ...

Where else but in France would you find road signs warning you of the possibility of stunt-flying chicken nests? (Or, just possibly, chicken nests that are being trained: for formation comes from the verb former which can, reasonably enough, mean both to form as in to shape or to mould, and also by extension to form, like forming an opinion, as in educate. Such are the delights of a language which lacks a sufficiency of verbs.)

Sad to say the truth is rather more mundane - did you really expect anything else - for a nid de poule is also a pothole. Which are, apparently, in training around here.

Anyway, for my sins, I have just been made aware - thanks to the seemingly infinite resources of thar innatübz - of an undeservedly obscure fact, the importance of which is difficult to underestimate: you cannot hum whilst holding your nose. Try it some time in the shower - the acoustics are always best there - and call me a liar.

But whilst I was doing that, and other things, I was also getting extremely off-pissed, for my stubby fingers were morris-dancing across the keyboard and every other sentence I'd suddenly have a 'Q' when I'd pressed 'A' as Windoze decided to swap from French to English keyboard layout. (You may not have this problem: you probably don't have multi-lingual machines. I do.)

I learnt a while back that when you hit that silly flying window key (which I shall, from henceforth, refer to as the "splat" key, at least until I am contacted with prejudice by Apple's lawyers) and the spacebar at the same time this would happen but that is, let's face it, an unlikely sequence - and then I noticed that it seemed to happen more often when swapping between RDP sessions with the Linux boxen and wondered if that wasn't related ...

As it turns out, no. All kudos to Microsoft, by the way, for ensuring that various system parameters have, under Windows 8, been scattered to all four corners of the screen so that actually getting to one that interests you - or even knowing that it exists - is rather like playing roulette. (You know, they used to make a big thing of having a usability lab. Not so much these days.) Whatever. It turns out that if you hit Splat+X and run the control panel you should not try fiddling with the keyboard options, for that will do you no good at all.

Neither will going to the regional settings, although you could be forgiven for hoping that it would. No, you must go to "Language". From there do not try to change formats, because that will just get you back to the regional options which are no bloody use at all - no, you must select "Advanced settings", and then "Change language bar hot keys". (Which sounds, when you think of it, rather like one of those meaningless phrases you see on T-shirts, dreamt up by some illiterate Burmese peasant whose acquaintance with English is purely notional.)

I did not know this - why should I? I have better things to do with my time - but by default Shift+Ctrl will also shift between your keyboard layouts. (OK, why didn't I just get rid of the English keyboard layout? Because it is tied intimately to the English input method, which I happen to use. Don't ask silly questions.)

I only mention all this because quite frankly, losing a half-hour's work through pressing what you fondly imagined was Ctrl+W but turned out in fact to be Ctrl+Z gets to be kind of annoying. Okay, the first time you can almost see the funny side of it,  but the third or fourth you just want to kill something. Preferably, something small, furry, and helpless enough that there is no risk of its doing you any damage.

One of the few signs of life around here on a Friday is the appearance, just around the corner from us, of the white van and its proprietor, the volailler. Sometimes his coming is announced over the municipal Tannoy system, more often than not he just quietly turns up and parks, waiting for the customers. Who always seem to turn up, little old ladies in dribs and drabs, coming along to buy a farm chicken for the weekend roast, or some blanc de poulet such as might be sustaining for an invalid ... and always, within a short distance, most of the neighbourhood cats - nicely groomed, as befits the occasion, purring like mad, and waiting patiently for scraps. There's usually a particularly elegant white Persian: looks as though Blofeld has come down in the world and can't even afford cat food.

Speaking of the Tannoy system, that's been working overtime lately. It may have escaped your attention over there in Bottoms-Up Land, but over here we is having municipal elections. And despite the fact that, in the best Russian tradition, there is only one slate up for the vote, at least twice a day the mighty valve amplifier hidden deep in the bowels of the mairie gets 220V stuck up the jacksie just when it least expects it, and the nesting sparrows are blasted from the speakers strung about the village with a preliminary high-frequency fart.

That's just the warm-up. Then comes the stirring brass-band music, complete with the hisses and crackles from the original 1950's cassette, and then "Allo! Allo! Aux habitants de Moux ..." for on Sunday everyone must get tarted up and go off to vote. Or so it seems. Me, not being of the French persuasion I shall lounge disreputably on the terrace - which is now, by the way, thoroughly waterproof - and possibly, for entertainment, chuck cigar butts on passers-by. One of life's little pleasures.

Whatever, Margo's off at Grenoble for a few days and I was kind of looking forward to spending a bit of quality time in bed this moaning, given that she's taken the car and all so marketry is not really an option: sad to say that some time around 7am PSC and EBK saw fit to dispute the ownership of one small patch of bed (the fabled "hot spot"), sufficiently vehemently to drag me from the arms of Morpheus and send me lurching downstairs in search of a caffeine fix.

Although I'd had the forethought to get a couple of loaves of Barm Brack ready to bake - and surprisingly enough, had sufficient wits about me to turn the oven on when I made it down - I had inexplicably neglected to get the coffee machine ready to go: a shame really because it seems to take at least five times longer to do that in the morning than at night. When I'm actually awake, or at least sentient.

Still, I managed to get that going without the actual coffee pot dropping to the floor and shattering into a thousand slivers, just as well really because cleaning up a mess like that at such an hour is not really one of my strong points, and made it back to bed hoping for another ten minutes of peace and quiet until the coffee was ready and the oven hot ...

Sadly, about half-way through that PSC decided that it really was time she went outside to perform her toilette, which involves her thumping down the stairs, realising half-way down that I haven't followed, thumping back up to make sure that I appreciate the gravity of the situation, then going down to sit by the front door with crossed legs. So I stagger down and open the door, at which point she decides that this is too easy, also no fun at all, and skitters off into the pantry.

After playing that little game for five minutes I decide that I might as well stick the bread in the oven and go put some clothes on while I'm at it, so that I can at least go out on the terrace with my coffee while the bread's cooking. And it's whilst rummaging through clothes baskets that I discover that although someone has indeed deigned to use the dirtbox so thoughtfully provided, her aim is - approximative.

Looking on the bright side, barring something catastrophically unlikely the day could only get better from then on.

And truth to tell, it could've been much worse. Alright, the clouds were drifting about purposefully, but - as I reflected after only ten minutes with the camera around my neck and Shaun eagerly trotting along beside me - it was almost too warm for a jacket. But we passed the local pharmacist - he of the impressively large, semi-autonomous moustache - and chatted a bit as he sat in the sun on a bench outside old Henri's mausoleum before going off into the garrigue.

Which never fails to remind me of one of the reasons we're now here rather than somewhere else. Without wishing to come over all Mayleish, wherever I walk I can't help but step on clumps of thyme, or rosemary, or lavender, and the warm air is full of the smells of Provence. Unless, of course, it's one of those days when the tramontane is blowing, in which case the air is not warm, and what it's full of is flying leaves and old plastic bags, for yer average Provençal tends to regard Nature as a providential, never-full land-tip.

Of course after a morning like that it had to go titsup and as the clouds got darker and the hail started clattering on the roof I started flicking through online cooking porn - godnose why, it's not as though I have any actual need for any more inox frying pans, nor saucepans for that matter, or a handy plastic and steel device for deseeding raspberries - and as I was trying to justify buying a full set of de Buyer sauteuses came across the stainless steel mixing bowls.

I really must get around to looking up the etymology some time, for the French call these things a cul de poule: literally, a chicken's arse. The great google, curiously, is silent on the matter: Whackywheedia is content to say that is because "the implement resembles a chicken's bottom" which merely indicates to me that the collective authors of that esteemed institution are unfamiliar with the appearance of either.

No matter, my current, admittedly deplorable, state of ignorance will not prevent me from stuffing flour, milk and suet into a chook's bum and making some decent suet pastry, fit to contain a beefsteak pie. (Yeah, you guessed it - got an attack of the leftovers again.) Mind how you go, now.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Vegecide ...

You know how some dogs tend to be tightly defined in time and space? Take a Rottweiler, for instance: this is definitely a point source. Contained, the wave-form collapsed. Jack Russells are much the same, except that they yap, and their bark is nowhere near as bad as a Rottweiler's bite. Classic Newtonian physics, they just move around in straight lines and their only interactions with other things are banging into them and bouncing off. (Or, in the case of a Rottweiler, savaging it.)

Shaun, on the other hand, is much more quantum. I think it's the hair. He has a lot of it, and about 95% of it is strictly localised about him, but the remainder just seems to go on, possibly to infinity. Hard to pin down.

Occasionally as I'm skiving off researching I get dragged into the dark archives where the old things lurk - and yes, Virginia, there are computer systems older than I, not that many of them are functional, but some would argue that I'm not either - and the other day I got reminded of BeOS, illegitimate spawn of Jean-Louis Gassée, once of Apple. You have to wonder about what passes for a sense of humour amongst those who write operating systems for a living: it had one system call which was is_computer_on() (returned 1 if the computer was on - the result was undefined if not) and also is_computer_on_fire() which, it seems, returned the temperature of the motherboard if the computer was on fire. If this turned out not to be the case, it returned some other value.

Now as will happen around here on a Saturday, I once again dragged myself from bed sometime around the crack of dawn, walked the dog, guzzled a coffee or two out on the terrace with a cigar, and then headed off to the market at Carcassonne. And as will also happen, it became clear to me as I wandered around poking and prodding innocent vegetables that nothing would do for dinner but something involving mushrooms, because really it's been yonks since last that happened, so I wound up with a kilo of shitake, pleurottes and plain old champignons de Paris at the top of the basket (along with the big bunch of fresh flat-leafed parsley that they kindly chucked in), nestling in there with some baby wild asparagus because I am a sucker for that.

It also came to my mind (such as it is) that the huge hunk of rouelle de jambon that was sitting in the fridge waiting to be marinated and then barbecued would be lonely without something to go with it, so buying a kilo of saucisse de canard, neatly rolled up and skewered into a disk, seemed like a no-brainer. And the huge plump artichoke, the poivrons, the poireaux and the chèvre frais just jumped into the basket of their own accord: I did not lure them with honeyed words or sweeties, it is Not My Fault.

Mr. Brain slowly ticked over and, as we headed out of the place, stopped me urgently at the Arab butcher and wholesale food place on the outskirts of town, because with all those mushrooms and the bit of leftover chicken meat (if Margo hadn't devoured it for lunch) a mushroom strudel seemed the only reasonable thing to do, and I was pretty sure that there were only two sheets of filo left in the fridge and with my luck they'd be going green ... come to that, those pears that had followed me home were crying out to be turned into a pastis.

I really shouldn't be allowed into places like that unsupervised because when I left I not only had the filo pastry but also two huge côtes de veau rose, some bourguignon (for a carbonnade, which is made with beer, actually, but let's not get picky), lamb leg steaks, two souris d'agneau (not some unspeakable bastard hybrid between a mouse and a lamb, but lamb shanks which are absolutely wonderful when braised) and a certain number of cuisses de poulet fermier, which just happened to be on special and can go in the freezer anyway, so that's alright. Not My Fault!

The concept of the barbecue seemed like a Good Idea at the time, which is probably why the clouds started to roll in and the wind got up, just to spoil my day. But at least even if they are direly predicting gusts up to 83kph (I know, I know, just a light breeze around Wellington) it is making sure that we are not suffering from the pollution that plagues Paris. Where public transport is currently free, I gather they're putting in alternate days for car driving, and the very young, the elderly and the pregnant are encouraged not to go out unless absolutely necessary.

Actually, the only real problem with the wind is that when we go out for a walk, I'm convinced that it gets up Shaun's bum and goes to his head, which makes him all excited and even more of a bubble-head than usual.

Sadly, it does not discourage the velocipede artists, who seem to thrive on the stuff and have all come out along with the flowers and the fine weather, and are a general menace on the back roads. Which reminds me - I know there aren't that many of our friends and acquaintances that could be accused of living an actively healthy lifestyle, but if you do ever turn up and feel that way inclined, it's a great place to do a bit of VTT. Just stay off the roads, will you?

Also, rain is not, it seems, on the agenda, so with luck Cédric will indeed turn up as promised on Monday to finish off the terrace. Which would be rather nice.

And the electricians are supposedly available this month, and as most everything else is kind of waiting on them, that would be rather good if they did in fact put in an appearance. Once they've done that and festooned the place with cables Cédric and André can get back to putting up the gib-board and installing some of life's little necessities, like showers and toilets, and then I can start putting down the parquet flottant, and do some tiling. Oh, and the velux need to go in too.

Then some basic painting, and we'll finally be able to install ourselves upstairs, whilst the first floor gets demolished, and then rebuilt. It seems unlikely that we'll actually be open for business this summer, but that's alright. No rush.

In other news, it seems that Number One son should be down for a visit at the beginning of next month, having finally managed to wangle some holidays. (This would not be a good time to mention the notoriously generous holidays enjoyed by most French-things, minimum five weeks paid leave per year. In the hotel trade, this tends not to happen.)

Somewhat later ... we were enjoying the first barbecue of the year, relaxing with the neighbours and the smell of burnt flesh and wine, when we got a welcome phone call: the electrician, ringing to say that he'd be turning up Monday moaning as well! So the weather's looking good -  bright and sunny, with occasional workers. Good stuff.

And as it happens, everyone did in fact turn up. The electricians are happily burping or whatever it is they do up at the top of the house, and Cédric and his apprentice are out on the terrace with a blowtorch, putting down rolls of what looks suspiciously like tinfoil and tar to do a definitive job of waterproofing it before putting down a layer of cement and then tiling it.

Which goes some way to explaining how it was that Margo and I found ourselves at Lézignan late this afternoon, placing an order for 37 m² of exterior tiles: thought we'd better get the damn things before it snowed, or Cédric came down with a gastro, or something.

I missed most of the fun, had to head off to the préfecture at Carcassonne to pick up my new carte de résident and, with any luck, my new driver's licence. Got there, waited patiently until I got to the head of the queue at reception, where the woman who bites the heads off chickens for pleasure snarled at me that she'd already announced that the service étrangers was closed, due to a panne informatique, and couldn't I bloody read?

Whatever, I eventually got buzzed up to the first floor to find that my licence was in fact waiting for me (and why the hell couldn't they have sent me a letter to say so?) and then puzzle, on the way down, why for godsake they ask for colour photos when what they put on the card is snazzy gray-scale - and then, back on the ground floor, saw someone actually sitting behind a desk at the service étrangers.

I very politely asked if by any chance she could see if my card was there - she agreed that it wouldn't cost her her job to look, did so, and walked out with yet another miniature B&W plasticized photo of me in my wallet. I knew you didn't need a computer to find a folder in a filing cabinet.

And on top of that, the sky above is a dome of deep blue, the sun is shining bravely, and there is no wind. A good day, all in all.

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.