Saturday, January 20, 2018

Spring Cleaning ...

The shouting and the tumult have died, and now that we actually have two liveable rooms on the ground floor and cupboards and bookcases to put things in, we find ourselves chucking quite a lot out. Having lived without stuff for over four years does tend to make you wonder if you really, really need it taking up space. Like, as it might be, kids' fluffy toys from twenty-odd years ago: but they are all up in the attic, preserved from my rapacious hands. You never know, we might have grand-children at some point, for whom these things will be precious antiques. Or not.

Anyways, it's looking pretty good down there now, with photos and a couple of ancient Malcolm Warr prints on the walls, and since yet another truck-load of furniture turned up from Emmaüs there are comfy chairs and the books in their bookcases, and above all NO MORE BLOODY BOXES (check off a number of trips to the tip with little Suzy, full of flattened-out cartons). But I have had to order yet more picture rails for the first-floor bedrooms and the stairwell, also some picture frames because although I have any number of photos they do actually have to be framed ...

There had been plans afoot to head off for a walk around the massif of la Clape on the 31st, followed by a seafood lunch at la Perle Gruissanaise, but as the sun came up unpropitiously for sheep (you know, red sky, all that, apparently they don't like it) things got changed around a bit and we and Rick & Mary and Martin & Angela and all five dogs headed off a bit north-west, destination a short (6.5km) walking circuit that would take us around to look at some Visigoth graves. (Big thank you! by the way to Rick & Mary for getting us out of bed around 8am, just in time for me to see the sunrise when walking the dogs. I am so not bitter about that.)

I'd sneered at the weather and taken my photographer's vest rather than a jacket (for one thing, it has pockets that hold a spare zoom) and kind of regretted that for the first half hour or so because up there in the Minervois, closer to the montagne Noire, the climate is emphatically not the same. Think, humid. And very green, compared to here - and it's only about 20km away.

Still, reminds you that life was nasty, brutal and above all short back then in the 9th century. Forty-odd graves - pits in the earth, lined and covered with flat slabs of stone - and most of them only a foot or so long. For children.

Whatever, I decided to do a decent New Year's day dinner for us and Bob! and his son Alex. It's become a tradition in France to eat game at Christmas, so during the week afterwards everything goes on special as the use-by date arrives and - without actually having had the express intent to do so when I left the house - I picked up a largeish piece of NZ venison that should have been eaten that very day and stuck it in to marinate for a couple of days, reckoning that bacteria can't read the labels, anyway the alcohol should kill the little buggers off ...

And at the market I'd had the good luck to find proper yams, aka the "oca de Pérou", which seem to be available once a year at this season: they cost an arm and a leg but what the hell, as far as I'm concerned they're a tradition. So they went into the oven with orange juice and butter and a bit of brown sugar to bubble away, along with some sprouts in a gratin dish with cream and wholegrain mustard and blue cheese, whilst I did a proper job of barding the venison with some Black Forest ham that just happened to be in the fridge, and stuck that in the other oven at 220°.

(Actually, it turns out that I can in fact find yams at other times of the year, in the local bio supermarket. But I still have to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford them, and as often happens in these places, where turnover is pretty slow, they get dumped on the shelves and left there for weeks until either some enthusiast buys them, or they go runny. I have standards: won't touch them once they've started to go flaccid.)

Of course there was still the marinade, and some mushrooms and bacon, so champignons à la bourguignonne were inevitable, and a clafouti aux abricots seemed a no-brainer so that was dessert taken care of ... we ate and drank with moderation (for a certain value of "moderation") and that's how we started the year.

I agree that it is a good thing that we, consumers, should be made aware of just what it is that we are actually buying, and I have no problem with the fact that the labelling on - say - a packet of flour tells me that it may contain gluten, traces of nuts and, eventually, bits of small woodland animals that thought it would be fun to play chicken with a combine harvester. So when, just the other day, I took a couple of ready-made cassolettes de St-Jacques, sauce au chardonnay from the freezer (I know, I know, but I got them to see if they were any good 'cos it's quite handy to have something to hand if necessary) I was not surprised at all to find the same sort of thing.

What did surprise me - bear with me please, I'm getting to the point - was that they felt obliged to note the the product "may contain traces of mollusks". I wonder, sometimes.

And as one thing segues into another, let me tell you about the latest leap in culinary technology ... over here in furrin parts, UHT cream comes in little TetraPak bricks: used to be that they were just that, you'd slice a corner off with a good sharp pair of scissors and you were good to go, these days they all come with little plastic spouts and a screw-on cap, as if you really needed the extra hassle when you're cooking, have wet slippery hands and wind up ripping the carton in half and losing most of the cream on the floor as you try to unscrew the damn thing ...

The actual point is that I needed some more the other day, to go into the pastry for my galettes du roi, and I could not help but notice, when I got them home, that the entirely superfluous extra packaging was trumpeting something New! and Improved! - yes! "Bigger spout! Pours faster!" This is your unique selling point? Humanity, I weep for thee.

On the brighter side, reports of the death of the traditional French bistrot are somewhat exaggerated. I had occasion to head off to Paris for a couple of days, doing a bit of work for the SNCF - and let me just say that the cold reality of a 90-minute commute via RER/Metro morning and evening really brings it home to me that I must, somehow, have led a life virtuous enough that I am spared this shit on a daily basis (unless I'm being saved for something rather more dire) - and rather than eat at the canteen J-P and Dénis took me off to a little bar near the centre of Vitry for lunch.

Ah, such things as to die for. OK, the décor is resolutely French 60's with tables in massive Formica and chromed tubular steel, but the omelettes! Huge and creamy, with ham and cheese, actually decent frites that resemble McDonald's pus-bags only in the shape, and a generous helping of salad with a sharp creamy sauce - and the next day a boeuf bourguignon, tender as you could hope for. True, the waitress told me off for not eating all my carrot purée "it'll make your butt look nice and attractive for Madame" (although I'm not sure exactly how that works) but I was allowed to have a coffee anyway.

So there's hope yet.

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