dimanche 26 décembre 2010

Crusty old cynic hoist on his own Bah! Humbug!

It has to be admitted that I was recently heard to speak slightingly of sprouts, to denigrate the fragrancy of parsnips, even to disregard them in a cavalier, nay contemptuous manner, as they lay comatose within the hallowed crib which is Canet market. The fact is that I have just passed a Crimbo more traditional than for many a year chez la famille de girlfriend Claire.

There were serial tournaments of pool, invasions by giant jigsaws and a hotly-fought contest of Monopoly. Much to my surprise, I almost won, despite having last played in about 1969, when I was aged eight and totally crap at it.

For readers suffering mental ossification, it should be noted that Monopoly has gained all sorts of new rules to make it hip, up to date, à la mode etc. They were all explained to me very quickly and in French. I can never get my head round the written rules of games in any language so I didn't understand a single word . . . You have been warned. Passing Go and copping the 200 spons is not the simple matter it used to be.

The French don't go in for turkeys but our table of 14 dined handsomely on a couple of capons. As I understand it, to make a capon, you take a male hen and do strange things to its bits, which cause it to be become very large, much as when you perform similar perverse rituals on a tom cat.

Be that as it may, it's a effective enough strategy producing plenty of meat, a lot tastier than yer average supermarket turkey. By dint of adding masterful touches of foie gras, champagne and in particular a truly awesome boudin noir (AKA black pudding), various fine repasts were composed. Monsieur Pickwick, le réformé Monsieur Scrooge et tout les autres charactères de Monsieur Sharl Deeckeen would have been proud of us.

Thanks to my dear sis, for whom the eternal thrill of trad Christmas has never dimmed, the Liquorice Allsorts, the choccy money and the inevitable poodeeng plus Bird's Custard were all in place.

I've never quite worked out why but le Christmas poodeeng anglais seems to enjoy a quite extraordinary mystique among les français. They're never quite sure what it is, but seem convinced that the poodeeng sacré must be a solitary astounding example of English culinary genius. This is all the more difficult to understand, given that they still tend to think of us anglytypes as complete barbarians in matters even remotely culinary.

Evidently while there is still poodeeng de Nöel, there may be some faint hope for us.

dimanche 19 décembre 2010

The great paper mystery explodes: Chronic bag failure

Paperwork? Vraiment, ce n'est pas mon truc. I am the first to admit that filing isn't my forte.

Here you see the ultimate in desk-top filing systems: The Mark One Intermarche Two-Bag. Well, it actually is on a desk-top or at least my dining table pretending to be a desk-top. It does however have one overriding virtue. Everything is in one or other of the bags. I know it must be in there because it can't be anywhere else . . .

Naturally I, like everyone else who lives in France, never dare throw any paper away. This is in case officials dealing with such matters as money/tax/rates/cars/the mairie/national insurance/planning/insurance/family allowance/travel tickets/BMDs/your late great grandmother's inside leg measurement lose your dossier and insist that you send it them all again . . . so that they can lose it all again.

Without wishing to be unkind to l'adorable belle France, why is a country that so truly adores paperwork so bad at doing it? We've had a small blitz of such occult but perfectly normal and par for the course happenings in Fa lately:

Victim A was sent two completely different bills for the tax foncière (rates) for a house she no longer lives in, and thus didn't owe any tax on in the first place.

Victim B wondered why a decision was so slow over her home loan application. The bank eventually admitted that nothing had been done on her dossier because . . . they had lost it.

Victim C (me, actually) received a demand for a series of documents that I had omitted to send (translation: that we have lost but we want to cover our arses by pretending you forgot to send them). Actually they're talking about those bits at the bottom of the form that you're supposed to send back. Well you must have 'em because I sent 'em . Curiously the same office didn't manage to fail to cash the cheques that accompanied the documents. Odd isn't it?

It was whilst telling myself firmly that I must graduate to something more efficient than The Mark One Intermarche Two-Bag, that the truth came to me, in a blinding moment of revelation: All over France, all these offices keep everybody's paperwork in supermarket bags.

Imagine those wonderful national insurance people and their Mark Five Carrefour Sixty Million Bags and Counting, with chronic Intermarche floppy bag drive failure. It has to be the answer.

NB: I reflected further on this matter and decided that in fact each office has only one gigantic supermarket bag, the size of a black hole and with similar characteristics. And all the pieces of paper have to be in there. Somewhere . . .

French left gueule-frappé by wave of Sprout Attacks

What the French is for gob-smacked, I have no idea, so it might as well be gueule-frappé.

Only a day after bona fide parsnip sightings (alias les panais) on Canet market, I personally witnessed this conspiracy of sprouts blatantly lurking with intent to baffle passing personnes françaises.

I'm not sure quite what it is about either of these vegetables that sends a certain type of anglais into a weeping frenzy of nostalgia, especially during the festulent season.

I suppose there may be a valid reason why dear old Crimbo should be irretrievably ruined by the absence of pointy white things and little green balls. Must admit, I can't see it myself.

To be honest, the English take on the biggest fest of the year has always puzzled me: Shut all the pubs, exclude your friends, lock yourself up with your relatives and do strange things to sprouts.

Obviously it's legal within the privacy of your own home . . . but it's not surprising that les français often think we're peculiar. They might just have a point.

Of course, you do get genuine moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding, such as when a local Monsieur related to me his first experience of English heavy-duty Christmas cake. "How is it possible to eat such a cake all during one day?" he demanded incredulously.

I gently explained, that said cake would already have been festering to itself for at least one month, and could easily be eaten gradually over the next two or three . . .

jeudi 9 décembre 2010

'Tis the season for amnesia, dah-di dah-di dah, etc

Over the nearly nine years that I have lived in Fa, mes comrades français have become distinctly more enthusiastic about Christmas.

When I first came here, things didn't seem to get going until well into injury time on Déc 23, just about in time for le Réveillon on the night of Déc 24, which is, of course, the official French big one.

Being of the antique persuasion that believes the whole Yule thang should start not before Advent, I was really quite happy with rediscovering traditional and non-commercial attitudes toward the great feast.

Personally, I think the right moment is when the first little door of the calendar has been opened, and the cassocks at your friendly neighbourhood cathedral have turned the appropriate shade of purple. This is possibly austere by modern standards.

However, being also irretrievably anglais, and therefore used to Christmas starting in July, French total pre-Crimbo secrecy used to throw me a bit.

Seeing not a trace of fevered preparation, I'd totally forget the whole business until: Oh buggeur! Panique! C'est la semaine prochaine! and I'd already missed all the last posting dates to Ongleterry.

Over the years however, mes amis have caught up with Crimbo while I just can't seem to shake off Seasonal Amnesia. This year it came as a shock to see a String up a Santa (see The Blog of Christmas past), hanged in customary gibbet-like manner as early as Novembre 29. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse on the noxious D118 to Perpignan . . .

Only two days ago when I'd still done bugger all, I suddenly had to swerve to avoid the aerial deco wagon sur le main drag into Espéraza (top pic), and was forcibly reminded of the festivities inexorably bearing down on me.

In this heightened state of consciousness, I quickly noticed that the good ladies of Fa had put aside their plant pots and were busily adorning le pont de Fa (AKA: A bridge too Fa) with tinsel and sundry other baubles.

Not to be outdone, nor to fail in doing their bit, Dave the Underdog has strapped a gigantic pine tree to the wall of the legendary CafédeFa. He collected this magnificent free-range specimen from his ancestral estate, hidden deep in the hills above deepest, darkest curmudgeonly Rouvenac (neighbouring village, see blogs and sériales insultes, previous).

The tree is nearly three metres tall and Dave's only method of transport is his long-suffering 2CV, affectionately known as Mimi. He brought le sapin de Nöel back to Fa, projecting an unfeasibly long way out of the sunshine roof. I deeply regret not having been there to see him do it . . .

Here's one I prepared earlier - The DIY Pollack

Regular readers of this well-belovèd chron will have twigged that gawping at seriously good pictures is one of my favourite spectator sports.

I find it deeply satisfying that I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to be an artist myself and am content merely to appreciate. After all, if people can be bothered to do the paintings etc then someone else has to do the looking at them; it's only fair.

I have a lot of time for dear old Jackson, much as he may have been completely off his trolley. This gives me certain logistical problems in that all the real Pollacks live some hundreds of miles away and I am about €20 million short of the funds to buy one.

However I couldn't help remarking on the fact that, when you get up close, nature doesn't do a bad job of imitating an action painting. Knowledgeable botanists will have noticed that the Pyrenean silver birch involved decided to lie down for a rest during picture-editing.

mercredi 1 décembre 2010

I suppose it's one way to solve the parking problem

After all, if you can't find anywhere to stick the old jalopy, why not just lob it on the deck of your boat?

The vehicle in question is fun too, the kind of clockwork car you'd find in a fleek comique par Jacques Tati. Must admit that I haven't a clue what make it is, though obviously a classic in its own eccentric way.

I think it's obligatory to be mildly odd or at the very least a tad bohemian to qualify as a houseboat owner on the Seine. Perhaps you have to fill in a form claiming to come from a long line of loons, tracing your lineage back to Louis XIV? Then you send in the form, they lose it and you send in again two or three times. All water under the bridge, I suppose . . .

There is an enduring tradition of strangeness relating to water-borne transport and Paris. Take the Canal de Nivernais. They built it as an emergency measure after the capital ran out of firewood during an exceptionally bad winter in 17 something. Responding brilliantly to the crisis, the canal opened bang on time . . . 60 years later.

It makes a wonderful walk of a sunny autumn Sunday to stroll up the river, maybe starting opposite the Eiffel Tower and wandering until your feet give out; in our case just past Notre Dame.

Shock as Président Pompidou admits Pöang fetish

Keeping the old hawk-like optic mercilessly trained on the world around me, I've previously observed that homesick anglaises just love to seek refuge and solace in IKEA at Toulouse. OK, so IKEA's Swedish which makes it a bit of a non-sequitur logically speaking, but it's nonetheless true that a good wallow among the Ektorps and Grundtals does seem to blow away the blues.

Me, I've always had a bit of a thing about Pöang armchairs. They're a seriously elegant and effective design. IKEA always claim it's a modern classic and, lo and behold, I've discovered that it's true.

Wandering happily through the permanent collection of modern art at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, I practically tripped over the daddy of all Pöangs: An original by the Scandinavian designer Bruno Mathsson from 1943. A true moment of anorakismo.

Celebrating la belle vie des huîtres : A cautionary tale

I like to dwell from time to time on those little details which colour our life here in la belle France and make it what it is. As the calendar goes round each year, I'm trying to catch up with them all.

This time it's la saison des huîtres so naturally the pic shows a dozen of Leucate's finest plus accompanying chilled white wine and segments of lemon. Actually there are eleven of the finest and one rogue . . . but more of that later.

There are extensive oyster beds on the coastal lagoons along the coast east of Perpignan right over to Montpellier. You can get a dozen from about €4.50 compared to about £12 on the net in England. And that's the way it should be. Oysters have been a cheap and valuable food source since Roman times. It's only in the last 70 years or so that pollution and over-fishing have made them a luxury item.

I can never suppress the admittedly smug bastard sense of unholy glee that anyone can afford them here. It must be the old égalité et fraternité coming out in me. Unfortunately this time I got my comeuppance, or to be precise, throwuppance.

There are certain rules for the avoidance of a duff oyster; notably you should always throw away any with a loose or open shell. Now all of these seemed even tighter than usual while digging them apart with the special oyster knife or spike.

Incidentally, the spike itself is well worth buying. There are few better ways to run a sharp kitchen knife straight through your hand than to slip whilst trying to prise open a particularly recalcitrant marine bivalve.

Actually there was one duff one in the dozen. Of course, you only need one . . . and guess who got it. Being unwell à cause des huîtres is rightly notable as an experience of extreme violence; a 10.5 on the Hughie and Ralph scale.

Much as I enjoy them, I think I shall be taking a modest sabbatical. But don't let me put you off. Les huîtres are a great tradition here and you have to be unlucky to get a bad one. Bon appetît!

lundi 29 novembre 2010

Just when you thought it was safe to come out . . .

I've previously hinted that my principal excuse for unblogness of late is that I was writing a novel. Matters have reached the point where I've decided to unleash a couple of chapters on unsuspecting readers of this time-honoured and distinguished chronicle. The story starts with a bloke who wakes up every day in a different time and place and kind of rambles on from there for 70,000 words or so, each of them lovingly hand-crafted and personally selected by individually-etched virgins, blah, blah, etc, etc, hem-hem.

I'm not being so rash as to clog up le blog space sacré with the aforementioned masterpiece but if you like to follow the link, you can check out a couple of chapters of The Reluctant Trilogy. Any fervent praise, blistering brickbats or even constructive crit gratefully received as it would be extremely helpful to know what anyone makes of it.

Ta in advance, Eddie

lundi 8 novembre 2010

Let's get moody and evocative dans les rues de Paris

I have to admit that there are moments when even living in the Centre of the Known Universe, AKA Fa, does induce a certain stir-craziness. Moments when I need to seek yer actual kulcher, the zest and pace of city life etc etc.

This is when it's good to spend quelques jours à Paris, a city I am fast coming to love and actually to know rather better than I know London. So thanks to kind invitations from some very nice friends of girlfriend Claire, we braved the slings and permanent grèves of the outrageous SNCF and wizzed off up there.

They adore grèves on the SNCF, think how frustrating life must have been for them before the invention of the railway. Actually strikes in France are not all bad; they tell you that all is as it should be in the world. If they ever stopped, there really would be something wrong . . . Still we got there and back.

Particularly intriguing on the way up was the presence of no less than six guards, not one of whom checked any of the tickets. On the way back one lonely valiant operative faithfully carried out his appointed task, though his compadre on the drinks trolley was deeply unmotivated, prompting severe caffeine deprivation on the slow bendy bit, just this side of Limoges.

I seem to be lucky with Paris. The weather was good again and all the Parisians we met were friendly and polite, in complete contravention of their notorious stereotype. We managed to wander straight into Notre Dame without queuing at all so the pic is, I hope, a reasonably unobvious one of said famous landmark.

It's years since I did any moody, evocative black-and-white photography so it was rather fun to discover that I can fake it on my picture editor. As it's only a couple of buttons, I can only conclude that I must be terminally thick not to have noticed the facility before. I also love cropping pix dramatically deep and narrow. So that's what I did with this one.

It Came From Somewhere Else 2: The Tin Dinosaur

In straightened times, both of pockets and jackets, it never ceases to amaze me what the powers-that-be can find to spend money on. I have remarked on this before and now I am provoked to do so again.

It has to be said that rival Quillan set the pace some months ago with its instant classic, the kitsch tin feesh complete with pretend waterfall on the roundabout outside Carrefour (see blog entry, previous).

Not to be outdone, Espéraza has hit back with an absolute masterstroke, a fabulous fabrication in polished steel, Dolores the Amazing Tin Dinosaur. Shopping trips to Intermarche will never be the same again.

Actually I suspect that this lovingly-crafted waste of money was partly put there to paper over another more yawning gap in somebody else's financial sanity. Only a few years back they spent a huge amount of time and money hacking a mountain to bits to provide room for a roundabout serving Intermarche, various other businesses and the local EDF leccy depot.

The EDF received a magnificently extravagant slip-road for their exclusive use. Now one end of the slip-road has been blocked off and a stout chunk of crash barrier installed, together with delightful Dolores and some landscaping, presumably to pretend that none of this ever really happened. Well, I believe them . . .

Actually, as local readers will know, the dinosaur theme is not entirely spurious. They do dig real dinosaur bits and pieces out of the hillside up the road at Campagne-sur-Aude, and bung them in the dino museum in Espéraza. Some species are even exclusive to l'haute vallée. I'm quite a fan of said museum, largely because its dinosaurs are genuine. Which of course begs the question of why you have to waste money on a fake one, especially as I've just noticed that it looks like it's on crutches . . .

dimanche 24 octobre 2010

C'est la saison des things that grow on trees

At last, the return of the blog; Once again I must tender certain apologies for a debatably irksome lapse in the dear old chronicle.

This is not because I've been terminally bone idle, I may add, though that's a convincing enough reason.

Actually I've been trying to write a novel, hence the shortage of time to beat the keyboard to death for other reasons, however pressing.

But I cannot help noticing how full autumn delivers so richly on its promise. The suitably delightful pic shows girlfriend Claire jamming in the fig factory. The fact is that nature doesn't half come up with the cadeaux at this time of year.

We've had hundreds of figs, buckshee, gratis and for nothing; both the luminously ripe, purple couilles de pape (alias the Pope's bollocks as they're irreverently known here), and also the tangy green figs; firmer, a little less liquid but equally sweet and delicious.

For some reason no-one seems to want them but us which, given that the dried ones are a princely €6 a packet down at Intermarche, is just a tad bizarre. The bowlful here ended up as half a dozen pots of confiture de figues, and dashed good it is too. Obviously there's a limit to how many you can eat fresh in a day, figs being notably good for the system and all that. Alimentary, my dear Watson.

We also couldn't resist a foray in search of les chataîgnes, or sweet chestnuts. These grow in their billions but a few kilometres away. In days gone by it was difficult to grow cereals en haute vallée de l'Aude so they used to make chestnut flour. This is how we ended up with great woods full of chestnut trees. Nuts for flour, wood for fires and building.

Wander through the woods, and the sense of fertility is amazing, there are ripe chestnuts everywhere. They're even falling on your head; round spiky husks, raining down from the trees, bursting open to reveal three nuts, usually two good big ones and a little thin one like a packing piece.

If you're feeling flush and lazy, you can buy them at €5 a kilo on the markets, but when you can collect half a bucket for the modest expenditure of half an hour and a pleasant potter in the leaf litter; why waste your money?

mercredi 25 août 2010

A man must have his shed (with apologies to Arthur)

In these gory days of ever more gross and degenerate lard wagons, I could not help being delighted, thrilled and even entranced by the man who decided to take his garden shed on holiday.

What more perfect antidote could there be to huge, white horrible camper things than this transport of delight hailing from the département du Cher in northern central France?

Just imagine the conversation: "Chèrie, I cannot bear to leave mes bégonias adorables, they must come with us en vacances!"

Being anglais, I had to empathise with this beleaguered creature, who could not, even for one day be deprived of his precious refuge, far from the madding female crowd, from tea, from doilies, and fêtes de Ware de Tupper . . .

I actually went to the trouble of trailing the shed for several kilometres down the detested D118 to Perpignan in the hope of girlfriend Claire getting a decent snap.

As you can just about see, the wooden body is roped down onto the trailer with tension straps, so I figure it really was uprooted from its quiet little spot près de la compost heap au fond du jardin and whizzed off to double as a beach hut au bord de la mer. C'est le retour d'Arthur Jackson des deux abris!

* Désole à
Monty Python . . .

dimanche 22 août 2010

In talking of castles, lentils and lard wagons . . .

So castles made of sand/fall into the sea/ eventually . . . by James Marshall Hendrix, if I'm not mistaken. It's good to remember that our beloved Jimi was also a wonderfully laconic singer and a very poetic lyricist. Many rock fans tend to be dazzled by all the geetar pyro and forget the rest.

It has to be said that my mate Stan and I are not of their number; we've always had a vague plot-ette to do Hendrix: The Poetry one of these days. However I digress (cf Dai Gresser, the well-known tedious Welshman . . .). Actually I've just brought my own appallingly developed talent for digression to its perfectly-honed conclusion: Being Dai Gresser's only slightly smarter brother, I've digressed even before stating any valid point from which one might wilfully perform the act of digression . . .

Or not quite: I did manage to mention the word castle, which is where our story really starts. As you may recall, I live in God's Own Village, Fa, Centre of Known (and Unknown) Universe, en haute vallée de l'Aude, département de l'Aude, somewhere rather vague in southwest France.

Unbelievers (normally Anglytypes from Ongleterry, I must admit), have been known to suggest that France is ten years behind England. There again, the French say that the Aude (a sort of French county thing) is 20 years behind the rest of France, and the decidedly po-faced denizens of Carcassonne reckon l'haute vallée de l'Aude is 30 years behind the rest of the département.

Mind you, we of l'haute vallée consider any true son of Quillan to be positively Neanderthal so évidemment bigger fleas still have smaller micro-irritants to bite them on their minuscule bots . . .

But however deprived we may putatively be in other respects, we positively excel, gleam, exceed, optimise, maximise, or even profusely overflow in the matter of castles. That's to say, we've got a lot of them.

For this you have to blame the Cathars. Who they? you may ask. Basically they're a bunch of C12/13ish back to basics religious guys who took a dim view of the excessively deep Catholic cashtasticness of the period.

Unlike the Lutherans, up in Dutch-land, who had broadly the same point of view and lived to invent the Protestant Work Ethic and even inspire the dear old C of E in the image of William Blake etc; the Cathars were given a good kicking on the orders of His Holiness until they obligingly expired and became extinct. Today we're not even entirely sure what they did believe in, except that it was uncontaminated by used brown ones.

As any fule kno, matters came to a head in a last stand at the most famous of the Cathar castles, Montsegur. The remaining faithful were given the choice of (1) Jump off the notably impressive cliff on which Montsegur stands (2) Be burned at the stake. Apparently they all chose Option 1. Well I suppose you would, wouldn't you?

However these guys and guy-ettes didn't give up without a serious scrap or two, which is why we have a positive connoisseurness of castles to choose from here in the Aude. They all tend to be small, rough and architecturally basique.

But equally they're all perched up on some vicious spike of rock with an awesome view, well up on the ruined underware vertigo rating (see cols previous). It has to be said however that one may select a visit to them as from an extraordinarily rich and detailed wine list.

In choosing an itinerary for a visit by my esteemed son and heir Rhys and my mate Ian, I decided on Peyrepertuse, partly because it's close to the famed Gorges de Galamus and partly because I hadn't been there before either.

It provided the obligatory gnarled and craggy old ruin, steeped in copious sagas of blood, and possessing a suitable very long way down on most aspects. It also had a stunning display of falconry, as you can see in the photo by Ian Harvey of Rocktastic Pix.

Being as it is now les grandes vacances, we fought our way up the road to the summit in the face of a truly fearsome onslaught of lard wagons, as my astute fellow blogger Kate Hardy recently put it. As a term of abuse for camper vans, I thought it was unbeatable so for camper van read lard wagon from now on.

But to sum up, I really ought to justify my own headline and mention the lentils. My mate Ian is a devout veggie so it really was the moment for a quick improv lentil dish. So here we go:

Experimental Lentils

* Chop up a shallot or two, crush a couple of cloves of garlic and fry them in olive oil.

* Add a tin of lentils and don't forget to use all the gunge out of the bottom of the tin; it makes wonderful stock

* Add a veggie stock cube, paprika and black pepper

* For the herbs I wanted to try a bit of fresh tarragon in a purely veggie dish. I thought about fines herbes which ought to contain tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil. I hadn't got any chervil but I chopped in a sprig or two of the other three.

* Add a little water if the mixture seems a bit dry, bring to boil and simmer for five minutes

* Mix in two or three tablespoons of crème fraiche and simmer until it's all back up to temperature

* Add extra salt to taste if you like it that way. I always think that getting the salt right is vital to the success of any dish

* You could bung in a chopped mushroom or two but I can't remember whether I did or not.

Bon appétit!

* You can see more of Ian's pictures by clicking on Rocktastic Pix by Ian Harvey in Other Fun Links

samedi 7 août 2010

Confessions of a trainspotter - It's anoraks are go!

I'm sorry, this kind of trainspotting doesn't involve the mass consumption of exotic and illegal dangerous drugs.

We'll have none of those rough-hewn Edinburgh tones, as in those so impenetrable that you can't actually tell whether the narrator is wasted or not. This is McSwitzerland for Hols 4 anyway and thus, whoops, wrong country.

But the fact is that if you have any trace of anorakismo; either latent, blatant or carefully concealed from a previous existence, then Switzerland will bring it out in you.

For a start, you can't walk 200 yards in the place without tripping over some narrow gauge railway, tramway, cable car, funicular or vintage steam boat.

It's no good, you're back in the dream world of your first Hornby train set, as smashed to atoms on your bedroom floor at the age of three, and there's not a thing you can do about it.

Actually it's all remarkably sensible stuff, as you would expect of the Swiss. They have cunningly failed to smash up, close down or otherwise destroy these charming and useful forms of public transport.

This is partly because lots of people come to Switzerland to fall off mountains; normally either by climbing or skiing. Curiously they are willing to pay lots of money to do this, and a delectable selection of cantons (Swiss counties, various) offer a unrivalled choice of enormous pieces of rock, each one especially equipped to break your neck.

Come the age of the train, they realised that building lots of lines into the mountains meant that lots more people could go there, and that to this day it's a better of getting around in snow than using cars. Breaking your neck before you actually reach the designated zone is really not very sporting and not quite the idea.

The Swiss also have lots of hydroelectric power so you can use nice clean, cheap leccy to run the trains and reduce the number of cars. Amazing how many other countries think this is rocket science, especially Britain.

The top pic shows assorted grockels rushing for the 15.30 from Bretaye. They all want seats in the open turquoise carriage because that's another great way to take ace mountain pix without causing a car crash.

It's a great day out. You take the cable car up to 8,000 feet or so, wander about in the breathtaking scenery, then come back on the rack railway (line equipped with handy system of cogwheels and giant hacksaw blades nailed to ground that stops train from hurtling down very steep gradient to oblivion).

The vintage paddle steamer (lower pic) is a lovely way to voyage on Lake Geneva or Lac Léman as it's known in this, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Eight of these remarkably swift and elegant craft are still in service, though two are due for heavy overhaul and a shake-up in the local transport quango has raised a question mark over just when and if they will be rebuilt.

Pictured is the Montreux dating from the early 1900s. This has already been renovated, not, it has to be said, without a couple of cock-ups, as some prong abolished the second class refreshment room in the process, leaving not so much as a vending machine in its place. This means the crew can be paid to do nothing, while not serving the hordes of non-existent first class passengers.

The boat you really want is La Suisse, built in 1910; a lovely vessel still equipped with its original twin-cylinder steam engine, which you can see whizzing round in highly-polished splendour in the middle of the boat; another key moment of anorakismo.

For normal people there are great views, weather permitting, lots of little ports to visit, polished brass, wood panelling, decent coffee and that whole general air of being undeniably classy.

Strange boy not just obvious choice for cheesy wotsits

One of the great joys of headline-writing is the fitting together of completely unrelated subjects in a handful of words.

Curiously, hyper-bizarre artist H.R.Giger of Alien fame and gruyère cheese are intimately related: The Swiss Herr Giger owns the medieval Château St. Germain in the 400-year-old historic, walled village of Gruyères. And that is where in Hols 3 - Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, we found the H.R. Giger Museum. It's as odd a juxtaposition as you're likely to find anywhere but perhaps it does say something quite perceptive about Switzerland.

There is a huge paradox between the impossibly green and fertile uplands where the cute cows and perfect pine trees all queue up to audition for a Heidi movie, and the mountains themselves which are as dizzyingly spectacular and dangerous as any in the world.

While this leaves me still puzzled by what makes Switzerland tick, it makes sense of how a country that during its 200 hundred years of peace invented the cuckoo clock, also produced the nightmare world of H.R.Giger.

I can't pretend that the guy's really my cup of tea but I can't go to any country without wanting to see its top class pictures. The other hot contender in Switzerland is the huge Paul Klee museum in Bern but it was too far to go in the time we had available.

Apparently yer man Giger has suffered night terrors all his life and obviously it shows. His work seems to be at once futuristic and sci-fi while also being a throwback to the medieval art of gargoyles and gothic horror. His official label is bio-mechanical, which covers a great deal of violence and deeply peculiar sexuality; a very strange boy indeed.

The man is undeniably a highly skilled draftsman; he could certainly teach the pickled shark types a trick or two. He obviously has the means to say something even if you wouldn't give the result to your auntie for Christmas. Or maybe you would, if you've ever been arrested for possession of an offensive aunt. Your relatives, you're stuck with . . .

Girlfriend Claire is pictured in the distinctly vertebral atmosphere of the official Giger bar next to the museum. The coffee's safe enough but I'm not so sure about the local talent. Reminds me of that old gag about Brains S.A., beloved beer of Cardiff: They don't call it Skull Attack for nothing.

The modern gruyère cheese creamery is at a reassuringly safe distance from the old village. This is just as well. Imagine all those Alien exploding guts getting mixed up with their adverts for cheesy wotsits? Not exactly comfort food. I must admit that I never got any further with any of the Alien films than the famous John Hurt scene. I couldn't stomach it . . .

*The author would like to apologise for the use of gut-wrenchingly awful puns in the creation of this Oscar-winning blog entry.

lundi 2 août 2010

We shall fight them sur les plages . . . and all that

I spent a good bit of last week listening to a gigantic documentary about Winston Churchill. The intriguing thing is that I heard it on French radio; to be precise chez nos amis de France Culture, who devoted no less than 15 hours over five mornings to the subject.

While I haven't suddenly become Alf Garnett's stunt double, I couldn't help being both touched and impressed by this French take on the 70th anniversary of the battles of France and Britain; all served up with extreme lashings of Elgar at every slightest break, pause or excuse. I'm a great fan of top class cowpat music myself but Dash it, sir! There are limits . . .

It's not the first time that I've found FC making a better job of English history than we do it ourselves. When you compare this with the bigoted and childish rubbish that the Sunday Times put out a couple of weeks back about De Gaulle's wartime broadcasts from London under a headline about "General Bignose", it's positively embarrassing. If Harold Evans had a grave, he'd be doing about 10,000 rpm right now.

The French would seem still to have a lot of time for Churchill, possibly more than we do . . . This may have something to do with the fact that he apparently visited France more than 300 times, even before 1939, and thus has a fair reputation as a francophile.

It may also be because he made a good few broadcasts to the beleaguered French, actually in French; fascinating archive material which I didn't previously know existed. And possibly because Churchill seems to have got on fairly well with De Gaulle, until he was forced to side with Roosevelt who, for whatever reason, couldn't stand Le Général at any price.

After all, Churchill couldn't exactly afford to fall out with the guys who were going to pay for the invasion of Europe. And it has to be said that even the French seem to have found Le Général a bit of a pain at times in his latter day capacity as Le Président.

Actually possession of a sense of humour seems to have been the biggest obvious difference between our heroic wartime twosome. As far as I can make out, De Gaulle had none whatever whilst any number of reasonably well-informed English people can still roll out a brace of Churchill's best gags 45 years after his death.

Ever in the spirit of fair play, FC even used the one about Churchill's state funeral arrangements, which somewhat macabrely, were allegedly discussed with him while he was still alive.

It had been decided that the funeral train should arrive at Paddington. Officials then discussed whether De Gaulle, who had presumably got up various nez anglais as usual, should be invited.

"Of course he should be invited," said Churchill: "But the train should come to Waterloo!" Like all the best apocryphal stories, if it isn't true, then it ought to be . . .

lundi 19 juillet 2010

We all came down to Montreux, On the Lake Geneva

shoreline, all right . . . which as any fule kno, especially if he's an ageing headbanger like me, is the first line of Smoke on the Water. For Hols 2, I have decided, possibly in an orgy of pure self-indulgence, to go for a bit of unashamed anorakismo. The town in the pic is indeed Montreux and the pinky building on the left is the present day casino, built to replace the gambling house that burned down in the song.

The pic was actually taken from the top floor of Château Chillon, which is a very nice proper castle with a roof and furnishings, some epic prisoner tales and graffiti by Lord Byron. Yer actual mad, bad and dangerous-to-know George thought the place really rocked, even to the extent of penning a walloping great epic about it that I can't pretend to have read.

It's well worth visiting, especially if your partner is humming that Durh, Durh, Durhhh! riff and has just subsided into his second childhood. Anything to take your mind off all that bluesrock-assisted dementia.

But it has to be said that Deep Purple's Machine Head album remains a very classy piece of work to this day and it was all made in Montreux. It was totally essential vinyl (that sort of round, black, warpable, scratchable, nickable, extremely expensive, plastic stuff) for any self-respecting 13-year-old in 1974.

This meant that you had grown out of teenybopperdom and when you consider that this included bands like The Wombles it all brings a whole new meaning to words like exorcism, deliverance and lucky escape. Shaving, spots, fags, booze and possibly sex were only just around the corner.

Of course, this was only boys' stuff. The girls all listened to soul and later on disco. Remember all that dancing in a circle with all the handbags in the middle? In terms of asking for a bop, it would have been slightly easier to torpedo the Graf Spee . . .

Later on, in the decades that music forgot, plenished with the horrors of the New Romantics, Boy Bands and other nameless serial drivel, I too came deeply to love classic soul music. I just don't know whether that many of the girls ever really came round to the idea of The Purps.

Imagine though, our distress back in 1976 when Deep Purple broke up. Wot? No more Purple? You have to remember that this was a musically dire year; slightly less interesting than a vow of silence. On reflection, I'd have gone for the silence. Then punk broke out. It had no choice.

But it all has a happy ending. Thirty-four years later The Purps are still in business. They've played in SW France every year for at least the last four and I even finally got to see them in Carcassonne. They're still pretty damn good.

And what of Claude Nobs, the somewhat eccentrically-named hero of Montreux, whose lone mugshot lurks among the plethora of pix of our five beloved hairy English musos inside the original Machine Head gatefold sleeve?

Funky Claude, of course, is the guy in the song who rescued various kids from the burning casino and then spent the next two weeks trying to find other places for the band to record, amid a hale of complaints from conservative Swiss persons who weren't quite ready to enter the wonderful world of very loud rock music.

Perhaps for Claude, the water still smokes . . .

It had to happen - Death by Push-bikers - Hols 1

You may have gathered from the headline that girlfriend Claire and I have departed Fa for a day or two in pastures new beyond the bumpish and grindette abnormality of Languid Oc Roussillon.

Having lightly lampooned our velo-istic colleagues of Le Tour de France in my last missive, I suppose it is only rough or poetic justice that I should have been plagued by cyclists ever since; much as one might be lightly hassled by a rogue school of kamikaze killer whales.

This has caused me to consider what might be the collective noun for cyclists and concluded that it ought to be a deathwishness.

Skipping the first day of our adventure because motorways are boring, I take up the tale in the Vaucluse, western Provence, somewhere the other side of Avignon.

The day started benignly enough in the agreeable chambre d'hote we'd found sleeping quietly at the end of a tree-tunnelled chemin outside the village of Bedoin.

I had been driving but a few minutes when it struck me that there seemed to be an awful lot of push-bikers about. Have you ever noticed while driving that you always meet a P-biker at some divinely-ordained moment of maximum danger and inconvenience?

Even if you're driving on one of those infinitely long, straight vanishing point-type roads, you will always pass the cyclist at the unexpected chicane with bonus demon potholes, exactly as the apocalyptic posse of 38-tonne wagons comes winging its way to hell in the opposite direction.

This will always happen even if the lorries have been in sight for the last two miles, and whether you speed up, slow down or even stop to lurk knowingly beneath your Harry Potter-type Invisibility Cloak.

Our general intention was to wander through the Vaucluse into the French Alps eventually ending up in Switzerland. If you are not conversant with the word col, then I had better explain right now as it's geographically impossible to follow this route without going over a remarkably large number of them.

I seem to remember that there was some mythical Scots geezer called Col of The Cows, but in this case col means a mountain pass. There are a few twee things near Fa called cols . . . that go up to a thousand feet or so, but these are for drivers still in possession of a nappy.

The ones we're talking about here have multiple precipices, awesome hairpin bends and positive orgies of suicidal cyclists. While actually trying quite hard not to kill any of them, I missed our turning towards Briançon and ended up right on the top of Mont Ventoux (top pic). As you can see, it looks like a desert the wrong way up, and at an impressive 6,200 feet is way over my vertigo limit . . .

Having thus been reduced to a gibbering wreck, I gallantly let girlfriend Claire drive the even bigger cols, being a Pyrenean mountain girl and all that. Just as well, because ironically we ended up a day or so later on the very same Col du Galibier that features in the vintage Tour de France pic (see last post).

This gentle slope, ha-ha, weighs in at a mere 8,586 feet while Le Grand Galibier itself manages 10,491 feet, or a maximum 5 Sets of Ruined Underwear Rating. I was already, shall we say apprehensive, when I took pic 2 though Claire still seems cheerful enough.

Probably the most entertaining aspect of vertigo is approaching a hairpin bend where the only visible scenery on the outside edge is a large quantity of unaccompanied sky, unspoilt by crash barriers. It's then that the absolute certainty cuts in that the dear old Kangoo is going to take off into several thousand feet of not a lot.

The fact that the old girl's shockers and anti-roll bars are a bit shot at the mo adds most effectively to the feeling of Designer Sadism by Renault . . . You do this about a dozen times going up Col du Galibier and repeat the exercise, lest we should forget, on the way down.

There's about a one in two chance of extra fun meeting a cyclist at each of the really hairy bits. Thanks to the route's legendary status as a Tour de France stage, every wannabee TDF hero just has to give it a go. I have pictured an uphill nutcase; these are probably more of a nuisance when you're desperately trying to jockey your vehicle, slipping the clutch in first gear, though the really crazy ones zooming down are probably more alarming.

Mind you, looking back to the vintage pic, I see that the road was merely a flattish pile of rock in those days so I suppose we had it soft. If the last pic doesn't look especially exciting it's probably because I had the camera upside down or something . . .

mardi 13 juillet 2010

Wheels within wheels - Tour de France comes to Fa

Well there you have it; Le Tour de France, even as I write, is somewhere on its way to Fa. This, of course, is the way it should be.

The race will inevitably end on Les Champs Elysées à Paris, but this is a small and insignificant event compared to the honour of being allowed to cycle through the Centre of the Known Universe, AKA Fa.

On Sunday July 18, all will start bright and early in readiness for the Great Day. The attendants of La Reine Marie du Cafédefa each have their part to play; there will be feasting, music and much rejoicing.

We thought of inviting La Reine Margot, as played by the delectable Isabelle Adjani, but such vast quantities of blood and guts would be unseemly on so gracious an occasion.

Dave the Underdog is already polishing his wittiest and most apposite syllogisms, Mollie the Dog is practising sulking and an enthusiastic relay team is on hand to track down all the Neefy Eepees and insert them in the dish-washer.

So you can teach an old dog new tricks. Incidentally girlfriend Claire tells me that the French for the usual version of this idiom is Ce n'est pas à un vieux singe qu'on apprend à faire des grimaces. Or: You can't teach an old monkey to make faces, which all adds to the colour of the moment.

Fa, in fact, has a long and distinguished association with the Tour. I draw your attention to the picture of Fa's own Tour de France hero Vincente Jean-Baptiste Fauré, helping to tow one of the official cars, somewhere in the Alps in 1934. A deeply modest man, Fauré won the Tour several times, led an important Résistance group during the war and retired to Fa to chop wood and look after his dear old mum, expiring with elaborate civic honours in 1971.

Fauré, one should note in passing, is a common surname in these parts; celebrated French composer, Gabriel Fauré, came from Pamiers only a couple of hours away in the neighbouring Ariège. It's mildly disconcerting to see businesses over there with names like Kevin Fauré Fruit Mart (Get yor luvly requiems 'ere . . .) or Barry Fauré Voitures d'Occasion (secondhand motors).

I must admit that I'm having to bluff this piece, as my sole technical knowledge of cycling is the chapter of Paddington Bear where he wins a fastest downhill prize in the TDF owing to his tricycle having no brakes.

Sadly I don't suppose that you could imagine such a story today, even for children, with it all being so professional. I did look up a bit of early TDF history; the second tour in 1904 or thereabouts seems to have been the best one. They tried having night stages and everyone cheated like mad in the dark when the judges couldn't see them. One guy even put his bike on the train. Great fun.

That of course was in the era when the Tour actually went all the way round France. At some stage the organisers realised that this was physically impossible even by using unfeasibly large quantities of dangerous drugs. So they toned the whole thing down a bit; which is a pity. As a profoundly unsporty person, I nonetheless do love the magnificence of the world's great sporting spectacles; especially the fundamentally barmy ones.

Fa, of course, is not without its sense of occasion. In the second picture, you will see what may seem to you like a perfectly ordinary gutter. It is, of course the Fa 2010 Tour de France Memorial Gutter, laid with the utmost care and despatch, only in the last few days.

Said gutter used to be one of those traditional French death traps, much too deep and carefully covered with amorphous fragments of cast-iron grating, so that you could trip and break certainly a leg and possibly your neck without even trying. The prospect of hundreds of the world's top cyclists all going arse over tip in the middle of Fa was presumably too much for Monsieur le Maire to bear . . .

It's a pleasant spin-off of the Tour that we always get a nice piece of new road out of it. The Tour always has to come out of the bottom end of the Pyrenees somewhere so it usually passes quite close by. This year they've resurfaced a goodly chunk of tarmac down by Intermarché.

I suppose this is the moment to own up to a certain quantity of lies and deception. It is with the utmost embarrassment that your faithful correspondent has to admit that, due to a truly gross cock-up on the forward planning front, he can't actually be here on Sunday thus dipping out on the biggest story of the year . . .

PS: I also invented Vincente Jean-Baptiste Fauré in the interests of local colour. The real cyclist is Spain's Federico Ezquerra pictured between Le Télégraphe et Le Galibier in the Alps and it actually was 1934. Of course, he ought to have come from Fa and it's not my fault that he didn't.

dimanche 11 juillet 2010

Heard 'em through the grapevine, sultry snores of Fa

Ah! A timeless scene that is forever rural France. A 2CV van lurks beneath the spreading limes and vines; geriatric masonry crumbles gently to itself, and not a soul stirs of a Sunday afternoon in sleepy Fa.

This is not entirely surprising as the summer heat finally hit us this last week with all the refinement and elegance of a well-aimed sledge hammer.

Summer has been a remarkably long time coming this year and even now it tends to sulk; sultry and stormy as a stroppy teenager.

It's odd really, we don't usually get this super (not) overcast and slimy heat, so redolent of a moderately crap August in Ongle-terry. What has happened to our lovely blue skies, we ask ourselves.

It has not been a weekend for action; it's the most we can do to struggle over to the Cafédefa, sink a few beers or cokes or coffees, read the paper, and swap a few lines of languid gossip, before wandering gently back home to collapse under the ventilator fans, like extras pegged out to die in a Sam Peckinpah gore-fest.

At least the bloody Guardian turned up for a change. Lately I've taken to reading Le Monde as my official weekend Grauniad stunt double. It's very good for my French and saves me the need to prod the newsagent with pointed sticks and other instruments of violence and destruction.

I don't suppose he understands any better than I do, how or why the less-than-mercurial conduit of information from Farringdon Road suffers such acute periodic bouts of constipation, especially here in deepest Languedoc.

But probably it's a small matter in the general scheme of things. Les grandes vacances sont enfin arrivées: The schools are out. Days to sleep and nights to party (in between thunderstorms and unaccustomed bouts of belting rain).

Unfamiliar faces arrive in our village, French, English and any number of other nationalities; 'Tis the grockel season, moi deare . . . Very pleasant but all a bit strange: We'll get over it.

dimanche 27 juin 2010

Vide grenier trauma - Poubelle turns in own grave

Got your poubelles at the ready? No? Well it's your own fault that your home is about to be inundated with total crap (ref dear old G. Ratner). This because it's the vide grenier season, when all and sundry in virtually every village en l'haute vallée and far beyond, both in kilometres and all reason, "empty their attics". Or as they say en Angleterre: 'Ave a car boot sale.

You may become arrested by trop de veng, trop de soleil and great overloadings of general picture-skewness as in this leafy, tranquil scene at agreeable Arques of a peaceful Sunday morning. Actually it's trop de vin but I'm rashly trying to imitate our local impenetrable brogue (veng demeng peng etcetera). In all such words, the non-existent G at the end, for non-existentialists, is sounded out fully.

Be afraid, be very afraid. All those innocent faces of the young, not so young and the positively antediluvian, lined up behind their cute assortments of artefacts are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

If you succumb to these sirens, you will return home, wiser, sadder, much skinter and driving an exhausted vehicle in dire need of new springs, clutch and back axle. Such will be its burden. In total crap terms, the average VG can definitely give Ratner, G. a run for his argent. The Chief Anti-tat Meister, Monsieur Eugène Poubelle himself would be struck dumb by horror, could he but see us now.

There are ways to avoid buying overwhelming quantities of other people's rubbish. One of them is to try selling it instead. Personally I'm not convinced by this, observing that most merde de VG remains unsold at the end of the day. My own grenier is two floors up and the last thing I would ever want to have to do is to cart all my tat back up there again.

I sometimes give stuff to the stand for the village school. They get the sous if they sell it but under no circumstances will any of my merde come back to me again . . . I have disowned it forever. More beguiling is the idea of perception: They're not trash, they're . . . treasures. Don't believe a word of it, I say.

It's certainly more effective to specialise in some particular form of tat. I have personally narrowed myself down to Tintin hardbacks in French and in pristine condition; large blue plates and cast iron trivets because new ones cost a fortune and I've got a glass dining room table top.

Actually wanting these items means that you will never see them at a vide grenier ever again and you will become totally tat-proof. Except . . . just now and then you do find a genuine and irresistible bargain: Aside from a copy of Waiting for Godot in the original French for a mere 50 centimes, I found four decent matching pint beer glasses for €3 the lot at Arques.

So why pint glasses? I always try to avoid virulent English ex-pat syndrome as I find it a real pain, but none of us can ever completely deny where we come from, and nor should we try to: You can't change the fact of who you are.

And we all have little things that remind us of our roots. For me it's PG Tips, Cooper's Oxford Marmalade, Branston pickle and an unshakeable gut feeling that beer always tastes nicer in pints. After all, I believe that the Danes still drink beer in a measure that has been illegal since 1695 so I figure these little things must matter somehow.

But here we are, always still in SW France, so let us remind ourselves with the choicest idiom that has come my way in a long time via girlfriend Claire: Il a le cul bordé de nouilles, which literally means: His arse is edged in noodles. No-one has a clue where it comes from but the French say it as we would say: He lives a charmed life. Perhaps we do . . .

mardi 15 juin 2010

A gentle discourse on the recurring subject of feesh

I can't help noticing a certain piscatorial repetition amid these musings - a feesh-motif, you might say.

Thinking that this might be like a leitmotif only with scales, I even bothered to check the dictionary and was alarmed to find that it had something to do Wagner. Screeching fat birds with added cod? Scary . . .

Moving hurriedly on, it is indeed true that I nicked the feesh from Terry Darlington's highly enjoyable Narrow Dog to Carcassonne sometime last year to reflect on two intriguingly black specimens by Braque.

Then there was Cantona with his sardines, not to mention my mate Stan and a hard man punk he knew in New York who wanted Poison tattooed on his arm. Unfortunately it came out Poisson . . .

I used to enjoy a spot of fishing myself and have been known to dip into that fine English classic The Compleat Angler. Which could all have kept for another time, had I not paused to consider what the great poet-philosopher Isaac Walton would have made of the magnificently tacky feesh en plastique which has just appeared on a brand new rond-point (roundabout) near us. I can only think that he would have been compleatly gobsmacked.

This actually used to be the carrefour (crossroads) outside the Champion supermarket at Quillan. Then Champion changed to Carrefour. I assume that the carrefour outside Carrefour was too confusing and positively lethal in the camper van season, so they built the rond-point instead. In a way it's a masterpiece; the great feesh en plastique suspended in mid air above its rocks, turf and deliciously fake mountain stream.

In times of economic crisis, one never fails to be amazed, thrilled and comforted by the absolute necessities on which local authorities still manage to spend money . . . Given that it hasn't properly stopped raining since about last November and even rivers as humble as the un-mighty Faby are teeming with enough real feesh to give the bonking frogs a run for their money, one might possibly just question which financial genius authorised this one.

Or you could just give up the unequal struggle and try lieu noir with tarragon, tomatoes and mushrooms. I dreamed this one up the other night and was rather chuffed with the way it came out.

*Chop up an onion and three cloves of garlic and fry in olive oil.

*Chop up three good, ripe and juicy tomatoes, three large mushrooms and four 10cm sprigs of fresh tarragon and add to the pan. Add a veg stock cube, a teaspoonful of paprika, a slosh of white wine, a sprinkling of freshly-ground black pepper and about half a mug of water.

*Bring to the boil and simmer until the onions and tomatoes soften into a sauce, reducing the fluid until the sauce thickens.

*Cut a large fillet of lieu noir (coley) into bite-sized pieces, add to the pan and simmer for about five minutes or until the pieces of fish whiten and the whole pan is bubbling again.

*Serves three. We had ours with mixed rice and peas.

lundi 7 juin 2010

Frozen idols or the noble art of fridge worship

I suppose the classic definition or crossword clue for a fridge should be low temperature space which is always too small.

My own example is somewhat on the diminutive side and duly suffers from periodic crises of volume, especially when girlfriend Claire arrives for the weekend from Canet, laden with sundry samples of cheese, asparagus and other rogue projectiles.

I should make it clear that I'm not at all complaining about her generosity, just a bit buggered sometimes as to where to put everything. And it's not all bad either: We've discovered that the world is overly obsessed with refrigeration and many things, strawberries and tomatoes especially, have a lot more taste and do not go rotten instantly if merely kept somewhere cool and shady.

Probably it's my own fault for having a passionate aversion to those gigantic and disturbing American stainless steel monoliths erupting out of kitchen worktops in an ever increasing number of homes, rather like the horrible squid creature that gives John Hurt a severe stomach ache in Alien.

I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, indeed I have been known to be deeply satirical par rapport those who are. But I am completely convinced that giant fridges will take over the world and appear in lots of Tim Burton films opposite Johnny Depp, who is possibly less all-powerful on the Degrees Kelvin Front but nonetheless a great hit with the girls, as I understand it.

There are a number of recognised solutions to this problem: Your faithful correspondent is pictured firstly Praying For Space. This never works so you immediately proceed (lower pic) to the full humiliating and unadulterated Fridge Grovel, in which all products of dubious age, condition or identity are either sought and destroyed or whizzed straight into a passing improv dinner.

The other really good thing you can do is to avoid buying a fridge with one of those useless cool box affairs. These really do defy the laws of physics; they make vast piles of ice but anything you put in them, melts . . . How can this be possible? one asks oneself.

I find that it's therapeutic to take it out on the cool box with my pet method of fridge defrosting. Being far too impatient to wait for the defrost function (which never seems to work), I always take a large hammer and cold chisel to mine. Very fast, effective and lots of fun though you have to be careful not to whang the chisel straight through all that pipework containing freon and other chemicals not lightly to be inflicted on an unsuspecting world, if you fear for the future of dear old Planet Earth.

mercredi 2 juin 2010

You won't believe this . . . but I wrote about football

I always like to try and ring the changes on this blog; after all, there are only so many rants that you can write about camper vans in l'haute vallée de l'Aude.

(Actually, I could damn camper vans and barking, crapping French dogs to hell on a daily basis, without stopping to draw breath, but you, loyal reader, would get bored.)

It is nonetheless rather taking my life into my hands to write about soccer, as there are almost no other subjects about which I know less, apart possibly from brain surgery. Fancy a quick trepanning before dinner, cherie?

I have a very clear memory of experiencing a reverse epiphany (an unepiphany, a disepiphany?) about soccer at the age of five.

There I was, all togged up in my brand new primary school soccer strip: green shirt and socks with white trim, plus black shorts. This was one of the very few occasions on which our headmaster managed to raise sufficient steam to trek us down to the proper pitch on Brereton Rec.

I could see his point. There were only 29 kids in the school, half of whom were girls, and thus not allowed to play footy in those unenlightened days. So I suppose we could only raise about a team and a half to spread over that gigantic pitch, even with the skool dog doubling as inside right and sweeper, and Sir playing too.

Within five minutes of kick-off, I knew with the utmost clarity that I would never ever be any good at soccer. I suppose it was all down hill from there really, though I did manage to collect a full set of Esso coins commemorating the FA Cup Centenary in 1972.

These had a display board with a hole for the special large brass coin denoting the eventual 100th winner (Leeds Utd). The hole was cunningly made just too small to insert the coin into the board without wrecking it so I suspect that mint condition sets are rare.

Esso coins apart, I have been resolutely bored by soccer for more than 40 years. Except for Eric Cantona. The man who put the oxy into that notable oxymoron: intelligent footballer. He also happens to be French, which of course is useful for French blogging purposes.

Early Cantona sightings were not promising: The sound of massed crétins chanting Ooh! Aah! Cantona! But I have to say that yer man, uniquely for a soccer player, won me over. Here was a genuinely interesting and intelligent character, not to mention the huge force of personality, formidable talent and periodic propensity for duffing people.

I loved all the stuff about the feesh, trawlers, seagulls etc. All much too deep and meaningful for The Sun. So I couldn't resist getting a copy of Ken Loach's Looking for Eric, in which Cantona plays himself; managing to remain as charismatic, philosophical and downright elusive on screen as off it.

Girlfriend Claire and I really enjoyed Looking for Eric; she being another Cantona fan with an ignorance of soccer almost as complete and profound as my own. Mind you, it still comes as a shock to realise that I actually own a DVD with quite a lot of football in it . . .

dimanche 30 mai 2010

Further adventures of talking pork and little dragons

I suppose you'd say that I've always been an improvising cook. Probably it all started because I was chronically crap at following other people's recipes and found it easier to make it up as I went along. To be honest the results were just as dire at first but over the years you get to learn a thing or two.

For instance, pork tends to like it hot or with fruit or with beans. So here's Belly pork with pineapple, red peppers and kidney beans as dreamed up today for Sunday lunch.

The joy of improv cookery is making something good out of whatever you happen to have. I'd got the pork, Claire lobbed me the pineapple on the grounds that it needed eating and by astonishing good fortune I'd got a fresh green chili.

This is no mean feat in our part of SW France where hot chillies are not easy to come by; the French in general don't seem to like their food trop piquant. Sometimes you find things labeled piment fort or strong pepper but 99 times out 100 piment fort = dwarf green pepper absolument sans chili and about as hot as Pingu the Penguin.

However I got one or two proper chillies from our favourite veg lady on Canet market and they were just the biz. Actually she gave them to me as she couldn't guarantee them being hot, which I thought was pretty damn good of her.

I like belly pork. It's cheap but flavoursome, though persons like me with fat old git tendencies are well advised to cut off the majority of the rind and fat. The bones too are small, sharp and best excluded. After trimming, there was about 600g of meat. So:

*Fry up a chopped onion, three crushed cloves of garlic, 2-3cm grated ginger root and the chopped up pork.

*Add a chopped green chili, plus a small diced red pepper, about 1/3 of a chopped, fresh pineapple and 250g of pre-cooked, washed red kidney beans.

*Chop up and add a handful of fresh parsley and two or three sprigs of fresh basil, a teaspoon of good red paprika, a bouquet garni stock cube and a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Bouquet garni cubes are exceeding useful as you can use them for practically anything, rather than having to keep a range of cubes.

*I might well have added a slosh of white wine if I'd had any but I didn't.

* Add about a mug and a half of water, bring to boil and reduce heat to simmer.

*Simmer for maybe 15-20 minutes, stirring and reducing the fluid until the sauce thickens. I always finish sauces this way. I never add flour or similar and think that getting the fluid content of any dish right is one of the keys to success.

* Serve with rice or pasta. We had pasta. Serves between 2 and 4 depending on the size of your gannets.

I've also been having a go with fresh tarragon. One of the bonuses of living here is that I have l'estragon growing in a pot outside No.5. I'm told that it's not so easy to source in the UK where it tends to be found dried (which I never liked much) or Waiting for Godot. The etymology of the word is related to dragon; hence the title of this piece.

Poulet à l'estragon avec des champignons went a bit like this:

*Chop up two chicken legs into bite-sized pieces, dice an onion and crush three cloves of garlic.

*Fry the onions and garlic, then add the chicken and fry until the meat is browned over.

*Cut up and add three large mushrooms

*Add a bouquet garni stock, cube, a teaspoonful of paprika, a sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper, a slosh of white wine, and three or four chopped up sprigs of fresh tarragon about 10cm long.

*Add about a mug and half of water, bring to boil then simmer for about 20 minutes, reducing the fluid until the sauce thickens.

Serves two with mashed potato and other veg of your choice. Why not asparagus? There's plenty of it about just now.

samedi 29 mai 2010

Salut Team Ireland! A tale of hot curry peppers

Those of you accustomed to wading through the vaguely literary blather wot constitutes this 'ere blog, may recall une crise des legumes*some months back.

Girlfriend Claire was preparing for a exchange visit by a party of Irish schoolgirls, one of whom had described herself as strict vegan.

This caused much head-scratching at the time as the French are pretty hazy about, if not totally baffled by veggie-ism in general, let alone the strict and puritanical precepts of higher veganism (hem-hem).

Anyhow the party duly arrived. It turns out that this particular teenager's definition of "strict vegan" apparently included cream cakes, and indeed any of the other myriad naughty but nice things to be found dans les boulangeries de la France, and for which they are justly famous. So small crisis, not many dead. I figure that some strict vegans must just be stricter than others . . .

Well, it could have been worse: Imagine if half the class had turned out to be garlic-phobes? I say this with feeling because I have lived long enough in France to consider la cuisine sans ail to be frankly impossible. I haven't quite got around to putting it on cornflakes but I definitely panic if I've forgotten to buy any.

Realising that starvation of the uncarnivorous kind was no longer imminent, our top team, that's to say Claire and her oppo Jo from Trim, Co Meath, found that a pleasant day off was possible while the Irish pupils spent time with their French host families.

And so it was that we spent a Sunday morning in Canet market while the sun shone, boats sailed and holidaymakers at last got a sizzling under their bottles of slap (Factors Various).

L-R, Maria from Ireland, Claire, Jo and her husband Damien are caught copping lots of intense info from an organic cheese producer who didn't quite make it onto the pic and thence to superstardom. Jo and Damien are often in Fa, and naturally the whole exchange was dreamed up, as is the way of Fa, over a beer at the café.

But it's not quite the end for meatlessness as Jo is in fact a veggie and we dreamed up a handy little dish for le grillade, alias the barbie.

I will admit to a particular loathing of veggie-burgers, veggie sausages and anything else filed under pretend-meat made out of veg. Taken to its illogical conclusion, you might as well squodge old sprouts into vegetarian fillet steak but when there are entire major world cuisines devoted to making great food out of assorted plant matter, why even try to go there?

If you'd like to try barbecued peppers stuffed with curried mushrooms, it goes like this:

*Cut the tops off a couple of decent-sized peppers (any colour) and excavate the white gubbins as usual.

*Chop up an onion, several cloves of garlic, and say four or five big mushrooms.

*Fry the lot together with a teaspoon or two of curry powder, strength to your taste, plus a dash of freshly-ground black pepper, some chopped fresh coriander or parsley if you're stuck and a slosh of soy sauce.

*Fry until the onion softens or it looks and smells done.

*Fill the peppers with the mushroom mix and stopper them with pieces of scrumpled-up tin foil.

*Place on a hot barbecue and keep turning until the peppers soften.

* Take from barbecue and remove tin foil.

*Eat.

As they may possibly say on Galway Bay: Bon appetit!

*See Alors c'est Begin le Beguine aux legumes, 9 février 2010

lundi 24 mai 2010

Une question d'étiquette, an occasional series: No.2

Etiquette, of course, is usually held to describe the subject, process, science or ritual even of correct manners.

It is also the French for a label, so let us act with all due decorum in drawing your attention to this fruity little number; a veritable corker even.

I ought to begin by assuring you that this particular bottle contained a very decent Fitou, as I can, myself, bear witness. So no slur intended on the expertise of its makers; absolutely not.

It is, in fact, a gold medal-winning bottle of Seigneurie d'Arse. Perish those thoughts of drink, feck, gurrlls, Father Jack . . .

To be precise, it's a Seigneurie d'Arse 2004 which gained the Macon medaille d'or in the Concours des Grands Vins de France 2006.

So titter ye not: Good things sometimes come in unexpected packets. Evidemment . . .

mardi 18 mai 2010

'Tis the season for 'erbs and other bits of planty-most

A sudden, sly appearance by the elusive luminous thing sent me dashing for the digital: I've been meaning to ponder a moment on our new herb garden outside No.5 for a while now.

However we've lately been too busy trying to save the basil from hypothermia and wondering whether coriander really gets a thrill out of 24/7 Force Ten shot-blasting by aerial water-cannon.

I've been growing basil in those pots on the wall for a few years now as nothing beats whizzing the jolly old green stuff straight off the plant and into the pasta. But in response to a constructive prod from girlfriend Claire, it seemed a good idea to go a little further so I at last got around to installing the cute little old bench that someone gave me, reinstating the hanging baskets and building le truc en bois to make room for lots more pots.

So now we have basil, coriander, mint, rosemary, verveine and tarragon. I'm particularly intrigued by the tarragon as I shall have to dream up some new dishes to make with it; this of course will be fun as it doesn't take much to get me haring off down le chemin de nosh, adroitly dodging the steely ricochet of Branston pickle decoys to Oblivion and beyond (Wot?).

I suppose I could add chives but I'm not entirely sure what one might do to a chive, and I draw the line at parsley because I generally slash it up by the tonne and the resulting bloodshed outside the front door would be too much to bear.

So what of all this new-found enthusiasm? Perhaps it comes of living in so a fragrant village as Fa: Round here, you can find thyme, rosemary, sage and bay leaves merely by wandering up certain suspicious footpaths.

BEWARE: In times of rain these are the same footpaths that teem with savage, mud-tastic Eepees camping savagely. NB: Eepees cannot be grown in pots.

lundi 17 mai 2010

Don't put yer muck in our Poubelle, Monsieur!

One of the many joys of girlfriend Claire is the way that she continues to educate moi, l'anglais in the lesser byways of La Belle France and all things français.

Take the humble word, poubelle, which, as any fule kno, means dustbin. As it happens, poubelle was one of the first words I learned in French at the tender age of about ten under the psychopathic supervision of our inspirational, if astonishingly violent, teacher. We all learned lots of French as it was a good way to stay alive.

I was most intrigued to learn from Claire that in fact, the illustrious-looking gent in the picture is none other than Monsieur Eugène Poubelle, after whom all modern French dustbins are named.

Monsieur Poubelle was le préfet de la Seine from 1883-1896 and the author of a determined effort to clean up Paris; evidently by the most literal means. He ordered that all apartment block proprietors should provide three different bins with lids for different grades of refuse. All these new-fangled and wondrous receptacles became known as poubelles. Careful with that trashcan, Eugène! Which is pretty trippy, even by the exalted standards of Syd Barrett . . .

Monsieur le préfet was thus one of the great, early unsung heroes of modern hygiene and recycling, on a par with our own English giant, Mr Thomas Crapper. When I first wrote this piece I was under the impression both that Crapper invented the flushing WC and that he also lent his (abbreviated) name to that most universal and democratic act of going for a crap.

Actually he did neither: He invented various improvements, notably the ball valve, and pulled off a remarkable marketing coup in being born with such an apt name. However crap has apparently been around since at least the age of Middle English (early C15). What a relief . . .

Unfortunately Poubelle remained largely unappreciated in his own lifetime. The proprietors did their best to avoid the expense of nice new poubelles, hand in glove with the tenants who feared rises in rents and service charges. They continued to use any garbage container that came to hand until after the Second World War, when at last the battle to beat the pong was won.

Fascinating, eh? Il n'y a pas beaucoup du monde qui le connâit . . .