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.


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 . . .

dimanche 16 mai 2010

Shock as River Faby loses Squonk-Quark Factor

All this year we having been suffering a prolonged overdose of weather: Helas, il pleut; helas, il neige; helas, il pleut some more; helas il fait pretty much anything except beau or du soleil.

What we've all been looking for is the sort of blue thing with passing white bits, as visualised in the top picture. It has vamoosed, been sunk without trace or possibly dematerialised by rogue Klingons.

During April, we thought we'd finally got rid of the never-ending winter when a deafening outburst of squonking and quarking in the Faby heralded the traditional return of the Legendary Pyrenean Bonking Frog.

Basking on the terraces of the Cafédefa, we listened with deep joy to this welcome and much-loved cacophony, redolent as it is of the heady dreams of coming summer. Steadily it rose to a pre-orgasmic chorus of glurks with squelch dream topping.

Elsewhere too, the natural world was awakening. The Scops owls of Fa resumed that characteristic plonque! noise which is their trademark. Not exactly a complex or rousing song, it has to be admitted,but sonorous, reliable . . . thick.

All night long, middle-aged couples who had given up sex, were kept awake by the passionate screaming of nightingales who hadn't.

And suddenly . . . sploosh, then silence. The Faby rose to a mighty and abominable torrent, (middle pic) as it rained, snowed, rained some more, and continued to be generally wet and bloody miserable for about a fortnight; the river only regaining its normal somnolent sense of self (bottom pic) a few days ago.

The bonking frogs were all swept away in the maelstrom. They probably got to the post-coital fag somewhere round about Narbonne.

Chez moi
, we actually lit a fire on May 15 (Wot??); a record by a more than handsome margin. In again a few days, we might spot the odd squonk, a lone and teasing quark. I just wouldn't bet on it.

It's Eepees, 'Arpies, RIPs and The Men in Black

I ought to start with an apology to any long-suffering readers that I may still possess, given that any traces of intermittent scratching on parchment, papyrus, or back of fag packet have been distinctly thin of late.

Really in this modern age, we're talking about the absent exercise of The Well-Tempered Clavier or even the rabid gnawings of Mouse on assorted fugitive pixels but I expect you get the idea.

It would seem that I have been deprived of the chance to communicate by successive deluges of too much to do, or to put it bluntly, buried under crap. Still there is news of Planet Fa, AKA The True Centre of the Universe so here you have it.

Fa has been invaded by swarms of new and very official-looking signposts (très pukka). Broadly-speaking one lot says: No Wild Camping or possibly and quite plausibly: No Camping by Savages and the others say: Don't Knacker Our Footpaths by Using Them When They're Wet And Muddy.

Well, all very public-spirited and all that. However the main reason for mentioning them is that I couldn't help a smile when girlfriend Claire told me that she'd seen an unofficial extra bit tacked on to one of the signs, asking: So how are we to get to the wild camps when we can't use the muddy footpaths? The Mairie was deeply not amused so unfortunately the addendum was abruptly binned before your forlorn snapper and Beater of the Clavier managed to nail it with the hawk-like optic.

So wot's it all about? Why has the Mairie got its culottes quite so desperately tordues?

The problem is Les Eepees. Lots of Eepees in campements sauvages dotted all around les environs de Fa. Now an Eepee used to be a four-track 7" vinyl job, ideal for show-casing an up and coming band or for buying a 12-track Beatles album in bite-sized pieces if you hadn't the spons to shell out on all 12 inches at once.

Unfortunately in these post-vinyl times (woe, shellac, shel-lack-a-day . . .), it means a hairy layabout (unsoaped). The naïve among us thought that the purpose of New Age Travellers was to travel. However these ones seem to like staying put. They've also come up with a cunning plan . . . instead of squatting on other people's land, they quietly buy bits of their own . . . and it's very difficult to get someone off his own land . . . hence the Mairie's tendency to rip out its own few surviving collective follicles. You may wish to watch this space but I suspect that it won't be a pretty sight.

Of course it's quite different up the road at unsunny Rouvenac where they don't have Eepees, just 'Arpies. To be honest, I can quite understand even the Eepees not wanting to go there, apart from any solitary eccentrics wishing to take up lycanthropy or to participate in the Annual Village Best-Kept Broomstick Award.

Anyone caught loitering with intent to go about their legitimate business or even breathing without permission is likely to get some ancient, venomous, fire-breathing Madame Troll (usually right off her troll-ette) threatening to report them to the Gendarmes.

There are a couple of ways around this. Now and again they cheer themselves up with a nice funeral; being as the average age of the populace is about 302, this happens agreeably often.

It's also quite pleasant when even Les 'Arpies have to hide from Les Temoins de Jehovah. I must admit I got quite caught out myself because the old Temoins have a very slick operation around here.

Their Top Homme is an exceedingly impressive geezère in a black suit. I should explain that this is a very rare sight indeed in L'haute vallée de l'Aude. The only time I have worn a suit and tie in eight years here was to go to a funeral myself and I have to admit that I felt distinctly overdressed.

Les autres temoins are also exceedingly plausible; they come up to you and talk pleasantly and intelligently about the job you have in hand, only delivering le coup de grâce avec Le Watchtower when it's too late to appear stark naked at the door accompanied by an enormous dog, or to claim that you don't speak French. Which wouldn't work anyway because they have cunningly learned to speak English. You've got to give them full marks for l'effort.