jeudi 22 décembre 2011

Man, we've just got to have the Stuff . . .

Glancing over the online Grauniad, I am immediately reminded of one of my enduring reasons for quitting the ever-viridescent shores of Ongleterry - endemic and rampant addiction to Stuff.

The aforementioned Grundina reports that some shops opened as early as 6am on Boxing Day to satisfy the cravings of thousand of unfortunates, deep in the grip of Stuff withdrawal. Cold turkey indeed. And the right day for it too.

Now this is not usually an F-blog but this time I'm going to indulge: Who are these sad F*@k%rs????????????

Back in dear old Keef's outlaw heyday, Stuff meant 'Erroin. It was hip, it was cool. OK, it usually killed you sooner or later, so millions of rock'n'roll fans are eternally grateful that our beloved Stoner eventually kicked the Stuff, and lived to tell the tale.

Today Stuff is just . . . Stuff. Cartons, packets, encapsulated unopenable plastic units, boxes, pallets, lorries, warehouses and inevitably homes; all packed to bursting with yet more consumer Stuff.

No-one can escape Stuff. We have car boot sales, e-Bay, bring and buy, charity shops, incinerators, skip hire, landfill, and possible termination of the planet. But we keep on heading inexorably towards Terminal Inundation by Stuff.

We cannot cease from buying Stuff. Even if we try to quit, it just arrives. It is given to us or thrust upon us. I have a new conspiracy theory that if the world does end, as predicted, in 2012, all the Stuff will be left floating in space. Poor old Mars - it doesn't want our crap either.

Perhaps I should be less harsh on all those pitiful addicts, who have hocked themselves to the eyeballs to buy Stuff. Every year, Santa preys on millions of innocent children, luring yet another generation into Stuff addiction.

Stuff-peddlers are getting ever more cunning. Nobody wants cars, telephones, or TVs that are ludicrously over-complicated and fall to bits in five minutes. Nor do they want an over-priced "choice" of 9 billion different mobile chargers or printer cartridges. But THEY force us to buy them. You will buy what we want you to buy.

Soon you won't be able to buy nice simple drugs like 'Erroin. It'll be replaced by Tri-methyl-dioxy-trypto-phospo-penta-hyper-gunge-amide, which gets you high for about 3 milli-seconds and costs 14 times as much. Sometimes it's even worse. There are dealers in the banks who steal your money . . . and then don't even give you any Stuff.

But we're all criminals really. Even those of us who have kicked buying the Stuff, still have to make the Stuff. Until someone comes up with a way of enabling several billion people to survive without having to make yet more mega-tonnes of Stuff, nothing is likely to change.

I suspect the world is more likely to end because we have successfully excavated every last gramme of anything vaguely worth having. Answers on a postcard please.

Yup, I reckon it's that time of year again already

Oui, c'est le saison festeeve. Encore?? Déjà?! It seems but a few fleeting moments since 'ere we had last Tinsel Time. I'm sure it comes quicker every year.

Whether that's due to the ever more speedy passing of unrecorded time, or because Christmas now starts in November even in l'haute vallée de l'Aude, I don't know.

The good ladies of Fa, who faithfully decorate everything whether it likes it or not, have truly excelled themselves this year. What with the café doing its bit as always, Fa has become a three-tree village. Quite impressively kitsch.

I've only pictured one of them, partly because I don't like these things to get out of hand (Bah! Humbug!), and partly because, with the other two trees being at the far end of the bridge, I couldn't get them all in at once.

The weather too was not co-operating; all matters the other side of le pont being largely lost in the dim and driving greyness. My notoriously obtuse Kangoo also felt mysteriously compelled to join in with the general festive denial, by spending three days refusing to start.

I must congratulate Renault on producing a vehicle so incredibly difficult to service. It was only by combining parts of two comprehensively gigantic socket sets, that my mate Graham and I were finally able to extract and replace the duff glow plugs, essential for adopting Go-Mode.

Once upon a time, there were two sorts of spark plugs: Big and small. There are now about 12. Why? I ask myself, if not to make sure that you CAN'T possess the right spanner. I'm not naturally paranoid but sometimes I can't help feeling that THEY are out to get us all.

It was with some relief that Claire and I repaired chez sa mère at The Last House Before Spain, where all is bathed in brilliant sunshine. Bonnes fêtes à tous!

Round 'em up boy! C'est le collie de Collioure

One man and his geese. I didn't know Phil Drabble Syndrome had penetrated so far into our beloved South of France, but evidently they have their own take on it.

As a long-ago trainee hack, I was once deputed to telephone the late Monsieur Drivel; a distinctly abrupt man to put it tactfully, so I don't mind cracking the odd franglais gag at his expense. The geese-herding collie was nonetheless rather the star of this Christmas market, which Claire and I visited in Collioure.

Your bill, Sir? That'll be €15 and a Matisse . . .

I've been meaning for a long time to drop into le café des Templiers. You'll find it at Collioure, a seaside town near Perpignan, closely with Les Fauves - that's to say Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck etc.

Being penniless and unknown back in those hopeful days before the First World War, the young artists were in the habit of bartering paintings to pay their hotel and bar bills.

Thus the bar eventually ended up with a remarkably valuable set of pictures. I'm not sure how much of the original collection survives, as some of the current paintings are of distinctly later period, but it's still a great place for a beer.

mercredi 23 novembre 2011

Woodn't it be luvverly? Mais non, Monsieur . . .

It's nearly the end of November and weird world continues. Even the most venerable denizens of l'haute vallée de l'Aude, people in their 80s, can't remember anything like it.

Tonnes of driftwood litter the windswept beaches

These pix show the beach at Canet, près de chez Claire. We get whole weeks of beautiful, warm sunshine, then Pow! Stonking great storms, complete with cataclysm and full quad sound.

Any excuse to use an arty shot while we're about it

Normally Canet's vista of virgin sand continues uninterrupted as far as the eye can see; ideal for a traditional little seaside resort.

But over the last few weeks, masses of timber have been storm-swept down the Rhone and the valleys of the Gard in to the sea.

It's been blown along the coast and fetched up at Canet; whole fallen trees strewn along several kilometres of beach.

Only a few hours after I took these shots, torrential rain was hammering down on the roof of chez Claire. Today it's all sunny again. Very strange.

* Having made the main point with a couple of pure news shots, I couldn't resist having a twiddle with my picture editor, so I knocked up this arty black and white to finish with.

vendredi 11 novembre 2011

Lest we forget, a village moment of remembrance

Here we have a rare Maire sighting. I should make it clear right away that I mean no disrespect: Monsieur Serge Jammy, le Maire de Fa, is, by repute, an able and diligent administrator.

However he does tend to be a rather more shy and retiring bird than you might expect from the village's leading citizen.

Which may explain why this is his first appearance in our well-belovéd chronicle of sundry and obscure doings here in extreme Sticksville, SW France.

The occasion is, of course, le jour férié d'Armistice which always takes place on November 11 in France, rather than on the nearest Sunday.

It's a bank holiday and principally commemorates the fallen of the First World War. The end of the Second World War is marked separately on May 8.

As in Angleterre, the French are reflecting on whether the nature of the remembrance should evolve, now that the last veterans of The Great War have died.

Personally, I don't see the need for any profound change. Whilst it was always important to honour the survivors, the primary purpose has always been to remember those who died in a carnage that remains almost without parallel, in its waste of human lives.

I think many English people are quite unaware of the scale of the French losses. But all over France, you can go into villages that seem to consist of two houses, a church and no pub, and find a list of 40 or 50 names on the war memorial.

Our little ceremony here in Fa was also notable as a serious suit sighting. Full marks to Monsieur le Maire for his neat, dark two-piece with tie. We are distinctly informal in Languedoc-Rousillon. Maires of even quite large towns are wont to officiate in T-shirt, jeans and sash, especially in summer.

Ties are almost unheard of. The only person I know who wears one is our local chief Jehovah's Witness; a very neat dresser, and exceedingly formal. The only time I met him, I thought he'd come to read my will . . .

samedi 5 novembre 2011

All these Kings and Queens . . . mais pas très anglais

When I first came to France, my new French friends and acquaintances frequently asked my opinion of the Royal Family. To which, I was wont to reply: Why do you think I decided to live in a republic?

Despite having spurned their own monarchy some hundreds of years ago, the French often seem strangely fascinated by ours.

They're particularly fond of someone called Leddeedee and not at all impressed by Preentz Sharl, thanks to his somewhat ungentlemanly behaviour with regard to her.

The fact that the late Lady Di, Princess of Wales met her untimely demise on French soil seems to count for a lot, and many French people are enthusiastic supporters of the various conspiracy theories.

The whole business of Henry VIII, the monarchy and the Catholic church baffles them completely. And the fact that the English had two perfectly good revolutions, purely on religious grounds long before the French had theirs, also comes as a surprise.

However it crossed my mind the other day: When were the kings of England actually English?

The official list seems to start with King Offa of Mercia (see myths and legends-style pic) in the 8th century but it's debatable whether he ruled the whole of England.

Pre-1066 and all that, there's a motley collection of Saxons and Vikings with unappetising names like Ethelfilth and Dogbreth. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Alfred the Great seems a good solid English choice but while Sweyn Forkbeard is a damn good name for a king, he was definitely Danish.

William the Conqueror and the Normans walked in, deeply uninvited, from France, followed by the Plantagenets - French again. Then we had the Wars of the Roses crowd, Lancastrians and Yorkists, who were really quite English, even if they were mostly either wet and crap like Henry VI or rabid psychopaths e.g. Richard III.

They were chucked out by the Tudors - Welsh. Being slightly less fertile than the average Panda, the Tudor dynasty soon expired, landing us with the Stuarts - at first Scottish and ultimately - Dutch.

I suppose you shouldn't quit while you're on a roll, so the Hanoverians - German - came next, followed by that Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lot. They changed their name to Windsor at the height of World War One on account of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha sounding just a teeny bit Teutonic.

I suppose the whole thing came to its thoroughly English and thus illogical conclusion when QE2 married Philip of Greece. I can't help concluding that our most English head of state was Oliver Cromwell and I'm not sure that's any great recommendation . . . Thank heavens for St George and the rather agreeable Kate.

mardi 1 novembre 2011

OTT Sevilla - Over the top and off down the other side

Being well overdue for a spotta kulcher, girlfriend Claire and I whizzed off to sunny Sevilla down in deepest Spain.

This was thanks to my old mate and former garage band confederate Glenn, who has established a gaff there, a casa even, with his partner Tracey. They were kind enough to invite us and we had a great time.

We came, we saw and were duly thrilled, charmed, interested, entertained and even genuinely gobsmacked: So a very sound plan.

Sevilla: the sweet smell of excess. This is the city of Velasquez and Carmen, and never does by halves what it can do by el shedload.

Textbook example No1 is the cathedral, as illustrated by one of my better pix. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Apparently you measure godspace by volume: Sevilla comes top, beating both St Peter's Rome and St Paul's London, though the fastidious will be quick to point out that Wren's masterpiece isn't Gothic.

Sevilla, like several other Spanish cathedrals, was built on the foundations of a previous mosque after the Moors were gradually expelled from Spain. First flatten your mosque . . . the cathedral builders wanted to create an edifice "so magnificent that posterity would think us mad". I can't say that they failed.

One bit of mosque that survived is the gorgeous Giralda, formerly the minaret and now the bell tower. The Moors actually wanted to knock it down rather than leave it to the infidels. But that notable extreme conservationist King Alphonse X declared he would put the lot of them to the sword if they touched a single brick of it. Who said town planning was boring?

Walking up the Giralda is also a great way to look out over the rooftops. I have a notoriously bad head for heights, but my tough babe girlfriend would have called me a wuss if I'd copped out. Actually it wasn't the biggest of deals compared to the 10,500ft Col du Galibier (See Blog maximum ruined underpants ratings, previous). So I did it.

Don't look down, it's El Patio de Los Naranjos

And here we are, admiring the view from the Giralda, and taking in another bit of mosque that got away - El Patio de Los Naranjos.

Actually it sounds a bit prosaic in English, meaning as it does, Court of the Orange Trees. However it's a good moment to mention Los Naranjos, another hallmark of Sevilla.

There are orange trees planted everywhere for a bit of shade. The oranges are green at the moment. They will be ripe in December.

Obviously they're something of a shrine for marmalade nuts like me. Dear old Cooper's Oxford Bung Full Of Sevilla Orange Chunks Marmalade is one of the few choses anglais that I do rather pine for in deepest Fa.

The pic is the first of several by Claire in this sequence on Sevilla.

A wander through the gardens of Pedro the Cruel

Next stop from the cathedral is the Alcazar palace, where Sevilla's rulers have lived it up since Roman times.

The resulting complex of buildings and gardens is one of the best examples of Mudejar architecture, a style created by Moorish craftsmen working under Christian rule.

The place has been codged about on various occasions over the centuries, but it owes most of its present form to one King Pedro the Cruel (1350-69) and his hot babe mistress Maria de Padilla.

Pedro was also known as The Just, but apparently that depended on whether he (a) liked you or (b) also had your other foot nailed to the floor.

NB Maria was obviously smart as well as hot, managing to stay on the right side of Pedro, despite attracting an enormous army of admirers who drank her bath water . . .

It's an amazing building but I also found the gardens quite wonderful, hence Claire's pic.

The world according to carp - extreme feeshness

You may recall that The Last House has an abiding sense of feeshness.

Not quite a fish fetish, but certainly a deep appreciation, a profound awareness of matters piscatorial . . .

I was thus thrilled by the discovery of this amazing collection of gigantic mirror carp in the Alcazar gardens. So we shall halt, briefly, the conventional travelogue for a moment of intense feeshness.

All compleat anglers, of course, know that the wily carp is revered among fishermen as the most intelligent and challenging of fish. If you caught a carp the size of these monsters, you would probably quit while you're ahead.

But actually these feesh seemed a bit theek . . . or at the very least, lacking in subtlety. Obviously this magnificent shoal would not grow naturally in waters the size of a modest swimming pool.

They have to be fed, and expect to be fed. In fact they come right up to you and open their great fishy gobs in anticipation. It was never like that on the Trent and Mersey Canal . . .

The Mezquita - the Moors' finest hour in Spain

Deciding on a day out from Sevilla, we headed for Cordoba, to visit the Mezquita - the finest mosque the Moors ever built in Spain, and fortunately the one that's still standing.

It's intriguing as to why the advancing Catholics didn't go in for mosque-flattening here as elsewhere.

Possibly the extraordinary beauty of the building with its endless double arches and columns was acknowledged.

Probably Cordoba could not have afforded a replacement cathedral on anywhere near the same scale as at Sevilla.

Anyway for three centuries, the Catholics left the building well alone, converting it to a cathedral with the lightest of modifications. Even the most sacred part of the mosque, the prayer niche or mihrab remains intact to this day.

But inevitably they succumbed to temptation: They carved a chunk out of the middle of the Mezquita, and inserted a Renaissance cathedral choir with gigantic high altar. It has to be the most bizarre religious fusion ever. Somehow I (purposely, I think) omitted to photograph it.

Still, we're amazingly lucky that no-one ever smashed this astonishing building. We still have about 85% of the original. They could have flattened the lot.

How could we possibly finish without flamenco?

All good things come to an end. And our last night in Sevilla? It had to be flamenco.

You can find all sorts of flamenco in the city: Seriously good and seriously expensive; bloody awful tourist tat and seriously expensive . . . and probably lots of other options.

And then there's roots flamenco. Effectively it's folk club stuff, except that no-one sticks their finger in their ear . . .

Full marks to Glenn for spotting the gig and to Claire for getting a remarkably good pic under zero light conditions.

I loved the guitar work, amusingly imaginative and eclectic in its occasional blue notes and cunningly jazzy passing chords. I also loved the way the band encouraged young singers and dancers to join in from the audience, still in their jeans and T-shirts.

Perhaps not virtuoso performers, but great live music. My kind of music in my kind of city. Adios Sevilla . . .

jeudi 20 octobre 2011

On a touchy subject of deep-seated discontentment

I have decided to award myself a rant. Now rants should always be applied sparingly, as too many can be boring. But it's a good long time since I had a proper one.

As you will see, I have selected the humble lavatory seat as the subject for my whinge, ahem, I mean to say learned discourse.

Wot I want to know is this: Why can't you buy toilet seat hinges in France that don't fall to bits?

This is an important matter if you are of the Wooden Seat Persuasion. I have just fitted my third seat in four years to the upstairs lav.

As you can see from the pic, the woodwork is great; close-grained, splinter-free and very comfortable . . . when you're not living in fear of it sliding out from underneath you.

The problem is always the hinges. I wouldn't mind the screw threads being totally crap, if I could glue them up with Loctite (a particularly effective metal glue, end of free plug). But I can't buy the blasted stuff in la belle France.

Whilst the bits holding the seat and the lid to the pan fell apart in about ten minutes, the remains of the hinges turned green and corroded solid.

In fact I had to cut them off with a disc grinder. How is it possible to engineer something so badly, with all the strength in the wrong place?!

Now don't get me wrong. French engineering has achieved many fine things that simply would never have happened in Britain: The Eiffel Tower, umpteen high-speed railway lines, the Millau Viaduct, a new international football stadium.

It's a little-known fact that a Victorian megalomaniac railway magnate called Sir Edward Watkin tried to build an Eiffel Tower anglais, but gave up before he'd even finished the first bit with the four legs.

I suppose it illustrates a fundamental difference between our two nations. Les français are so good at giant projects, but can't produce a handful of decent plumbing fittings. Why this should be so entirely baffles me.

Mind you, as a member of the mighty race that couldn't rebuild an existing football pitch, maybe I ought to fermer la bouche. Rant fini.

mercredi 19 octobre 2011

And already the first snow up in the high country

I was driving up to the famed Last House itself, chez la mère de Claire; a doughty old lady, who would give She Who Must Be Obeyed (à la Rumpole) a run for her money. With ever-increasing difficulty, I regarded the bedraggled and tortuous cart-track which passes for a road in the uppermost vallée de l'Aude.

At least the icy downpour kept the lard wagons at bay. Camper vans are tragically endemic to this steep, narrow and motley pass onto the great plateau of the southern Pyrenees.

Allegro, Rapido: their names are legion, and a blatant offence under any form of Trades Descriptions Act. Incidentally France doesn't seem to possess any such thing, but I'll save that for a rant another day.

I couldn't help feeling that it might snow. But it seemed far too early. However, the next morning, there it was, fresh snow gleaming on the high peaks. Admittedly that's up at about 9,000 feet so probably no need to send for the Red Cross parcels just yet.

Of course, being anglais, I'm used to the panic aspect of snowfall: "White hell as lone flake falls on London Weather Centre". You know the sort of thing . . .

Sloe, sloe,hip, hip, sloe . . . seasonal fruits Part Two

But despite snow on high ground, the weather gods continued to favour us, as they have all this autumn.

Walking under incredibly blue skies, the latest batch of free gifts from nature were all around us; the rose-hips and the sloes.

I think I must get back into making sloe gin. No other drink has that amazing purple colour.

It's tedious having to prick each berry with a needle to let the juices out, but not so bad if you get yourself comfortable in front of one of your favourite old films.

Naturally there was a price to pay for such riches. Back in the uppermost vallée de l'Aude, swarms of lard wagons crawled out from under sundry dank stones, blinking and toad-like in the sunshine. It took bloody forever to get home.

vendredi 7 octobre 2011

Bien sûr c'est l'eau de vie . . . but it don't half stink!

If you're going to squash all those lovely grapes to make all that lovely wine, then it's logical that you'll end up with a whole load of crud, especially at this time of year. And here it is; great purple mountains of all the skins, pips and stalks, dwarfing the giant earthmover used to shift them about.

So what to do with them? Actually it's all remarkably Eco, a lot more so than most of the Eco rip-offs that I just love to rant about, given the chance.

Why is it, for example, that anything Eco costs twice as much as the ordinary item? Someone coining it again, methinks . . .

That's enough rant, back to the matter in hand. In fact, the best 20 per cent of the gunge is converted into a rather up-market spirit: eau de vie de marc. The rest is converted into industrial alcohol or bio-fuel.

Very little is wasted, so I'm quite impressed. Ordinary hairy blokes from Limoux outsmart militant beardy-weirdies.

There's just one problem. It don't half pong. When you pass the little factory sur le main drag à Carcassonne, it's enough to make your eyes water.

When they're doing all that squodging, mashing, boiling and distilling, I can't help thinking that there's a coven of redundant crones from Macbeth doing all the 'Bubble, bubble' . . .

I shouldn't let that put you off trying a quick snort of the eau de vie, I'm sure it's very good. It's just that, ahem, I haven't managed it yet. Santé!

With a certain hesitation, the mood is autumnal

For the past couple of weeks, we've been basking, sweating even, dans l'été indien. Given the lack of cultural ties between the two countries, I'm mildly intrigued to find that France has Indian summers, but it does.

However something in the morning haze, snapped from my bedroom window at Fa, suggests that l'autonne n'est pas loin.

Even if it's not cold yet, I'm already getting up in the dark, which always instils a certain grimness in the depths of the bones . . .

Actually I was more than relieved when Monsieur Lolo, Fa's amiably flamboyant village woodman, finally dropped my first couple of stères de bois, (that's to say two cubic metres of firewood) at the back of the house.

I don't suppose that we'll need it just yet, but there always comes a point in the year when I don't feel quite comfortable without it . . .

dimanche 2 octobre 2011

Michelle, ma belle, these are things that go together

The Last House never discusses politics, French or otherwise. But there's no need to blah on at length when the image says it all. I believe it's what journalists refer to as a stand-alone pic.

samedi 1 octobre 2011

Now this could be seen as taking the pee . . .

I am indebted both to the unknown graffiti artist and the photographer with the presence of mind to snap this one.

It's another little French connection, recalling dear old Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, in fact simply a porcelain urinal, signed and dated under a pseudonym.

He submitted it as a joke to a New York art show, whose organisers proclaimed that they would accept any exhibit. Actually they didn't display the piss de resistance, thus creating more of a story by bottling out.

The original Fountain was lost, probably thrown away (can't think why . . .) so eventually Duchamp authorised 11 official replicas, which you may see in the world's great art museums, and possibly various antique Gents' toilets.

An official Fountain was sold at Sotheby's in 1999 for $1.7 million. I expect you can get a new one at Bricodepot for about €20 . . .

In 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals. You couldn't make it up. Must go and let some out.

Never mind the broccoli, just keep taking the tablets

Now and again I try to dream up that miracle product which going to make my fortune: The one that's going to let me to spend the rest of my life writing, playing music etc . . .

And I think I've finally cracked it - E Number Pills. After all, if you're one of those militant, hyper-vegans, how can your diet possibly be balanced when you don't take enough E-Numbers?

Obviously I'm exaggerating because this is my sales bullshit. In fact there are many naturally occurring E-Numbers. Vitamin C, for example, has no less than five E-numbers all to itself, Nos E300-E304, because there are several chemical variants of vitamin C.

Well, that's triggered a cataclysmic veggie crisis already: How are you going to take all those toxic E-Numbers out of the humble orange?

And some E-Numbers may not be good for us, but would we willingly give them up? E1510 is alcohol. Even the finest organic wines, dammit, are bung full of E1510. And E1503 is castor oil. You wouldn't go far without that . . .

And what about E948? Er, that's oxygen. Life on Earth etc . . . And as a devout foodie, I can't help noticing that E100 is turmeric. Curry crisis? No thank you. And E407a is processed eucheuma seaweed, which sounds ideal for a militant veggie food fad, though really it's an emulsifier. Show some emulsion . . .

Admittedly some E-Numbers are much more scary - E385 is Calcium disodium ethylene diamine tetra-acetate. It's supposed to be a sequestrant, whatever that is. Perhaps it makes you go bankrupt? E537 is ferrous hexacyanomanganate. It's an anti-caking agent. Let them eat ferrous hexacyanomanganate? I'm not surprised they had a revolution . . .

Now you may think that I'm winding you up. But no; my learned dissertation is firmly based on true facts. I've just twisted them a bit. But to show there's no hard veggie feelings, here's the recipe for Progressive Salad.

It's so-called because my mate Mark, a deeply-skilled vegetarian cook, came up with:

Lettuce, tomatoes and apples, chopped together.

I added: A vigorous chopping of fresh parsley.

And Claire added: A dressing of walnut oil and walnut vinegar with a dash of salt.

Together, it's E-licious.

samedi 24 septembre 2011

End Of The World? The suspense is killing me . . .

I've been feeling that it's time for an update on the putative End Of The World 12/21 Dec 2012 cataclysm thingy.

Now you may think that this is just a cynical attempt at manipulating the Space-Time Continuum to increase my blog ratings. And you'd be right. Every time I bring you another in-depth report on the forthcoming catastrophe, it puts a lovely big spike in my stats.

Evidently there are watchers all over the world; the doomsayers, the paranoids and even the plain curious. This one's a real crowd-pleaser: Whatever your personal disaster rating, it's got something for everybody.

Right now, my spies tell me, there's a deathly calm in the vicinity of Pic Bugarach. Absolutely nothing is happening. And of course that's sinister in itself. We could all be caught out.

Up to now, all predictions of TEOTW have been a tad, ahem, premature . . . but what if the 2012 date is too late? Now that's really got you worried. It could all go bang tomorrow and the only witnesses would be a couple of farmers and that mad old duck in rue Saint-Jean le Divin.

Still, I'm told that there's an article on Top Tips For Better Cataclysms in this month's Cosmo, so maybe all is not lost. Incidentally, I only used the word "spies" to keep all you conspiracy theorists on the ball. Actually it was just my mate Richard saying that the local B&Bs hadn't done much business this summer.

The 2012 date for TEOTW is all to do with the ancient Mayan calendar. That's to say it Mayan it may not happen . . . Said calendar runs in 5,125-year cycles and 2012 is indeed the end of such a time period.

If you buy all this stuff, The End Of The Cycle =TEOTW. There again, if you're an academic Mayan historian, their classical texts don't actually say that. We're on the fourth cycle, and there's no reason to suggest that there won't be a fifth.

However there is apparently an inscription about a correctly-timed "Happening", from Tortuguero in Mexico, concerning the god Bolon Yokte' K'uh. He looks a pretty cool dude to judge by his portrait on The Vase of The Seven Gods.

Unfortunately, we know bugger all else about him. Which isn't terribly helpful if you're into predicting cataclysms . . . That's him in the pic by the way, together with a quick reminder of Pic Bugarach, as taken from behind.

The top tip for TEOTW appears to be a planet, black hole or asteroid called Nibiru which is going to collide with the Earth. I've a suspicion that this may be the giant, horned planet (with real horns) whose possible existence I reported on in the blog two years ago, but I'm not sure.

I've checked with NASA who say that nothing's going to happen (a secret plot to visit their website . . .) Mind you, these are the same somewhat blasé guys who recently announced that they were about to dump a clapped-out satellite on us.

Whilst not of the Loon Persuasion myself, I'm never averse to healthy scepticism regarding statements by Them, alias Persons in Authority. Remember those Home Office porkies over Chernobyl being nothing to worry about . . .

Bearing this in mind, I thought I'd better keep in with my old mates the Zargatrons of Planet Thargs, proprietors of the Giant Lizard Spaceship, allegedly parked for a quick getaway under Pic Bugarach. Just by way of an insurance policy, you understand . . . Thus I preach unto you the hitherto unknown Gospel according to Thargs.

It's completely practical and not particularly bonkers. Mind you, by the standards of round here, that's not saying a lot . . . Those of a gnostic* bent need not worry: Thargism is completely non-sectarian and compatible with almost any other -ism belief system of your choice.

Thargism is deeply rooted in the sacred tenets of 1950s TV sci-fi: The world may be totally overwhelmed by catastrophe . . . but we've all got to be back on the show next week . . .

Foolproof, eh? How can we not survive?

*I was deeply thrilled to find that "gnostic", the positive of "agnostic", actually exists. It always vaguely upsets me that no-one is ever gruntled or comknockerated or combobulated. Gnostic? My gruntles have rarely been so un-dissed.

dimanche 18 septembre 2011

One of those moments when history reaches out to us

It's a wet, grey afternoon and undeniably streaked with autumn. And perhaps a suitably melancholic moment to remember that I've been meaning to write a line or two about Wilfred Owen.

This all started when someone called Pam contacted me about a new memorial to Britain's finest First World War poet, who famously was killed only a week before the end of the war.

Owen spent his last nights and wrote his final letters, notably to his mother, in the cellar of la Maison Forestière or Forester's House in the village of Ors, 35km from Cambrai, in the département du Nord, which borders with Belgium. Owen is buried in the village.LinkThe house has been radically rebuilt by the architect Simon Patterson as a major audio-visual tribute and memorial to Owen. It's being opened on October 1 and you can find out all about it at the website of Association Wilfred Owen France www.wilfredowen.fr

At an admittedly cursory glance, Owen's death seems to have been more than simple bad luck. He resumed active service during 1918, after previous treatment for shell shock and seems to have been under no obligation to do so.

His subsequent mental state and attitude, both towards the war and his own part in it, seem to have made his death to some degree inevitable.

There's some serious top brass invited for the official opening, including the French culture minister. Pam jokingly remarked that the speechifying was likely to go on a bit, and wondered if anyone could come up with a few personal stories to lighten things up.

Which prompted me to recall that I probably only exist because my grandfather was accidently shot up the backside, the night before the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

He was helping General Sir Hyphen-Hyphen-Somebody off with his overcoat, when said general's revolver fell out of its holster, bounced on the stone floor and went off . . .

But for this almost comic episode, my grandfather who was a young officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers, would almost certainly have been one of the 60,000 who did not survive the next day.

The twist in the tale came when I discovered that as Owen led his Second Manchesters in his final action to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal, they were fighting together with men of the same Lancashire Fusiliers. I think it's only fitting to leave the last words to the poet:

Apologia Pro Poemate Meo


I, too, saw God through mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.


Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I, too, have dropped off fear—
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear,
Past the entanglement where hopes lie strewn;

And witnessed exultation—
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
Seraphic for an hour, though they were foul.

I have made fellowships—
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long.

By joy, whose ribbon slips,—
But wound with war's hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but a trembling of a flare
And heaven but a highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.

Just one more for the rail-road? I don't mind if I do

I always like a good label and I haven't seen a really choice one since the Last House's celebrated bottle of Arse back in 2010.

Of course, my francophone readers will already realise that some vandal with a sense of humour has "improved" this advertising slogan on the celebrated Train Jaune way up in the Pyrenees.

I'm indebted to Claire's best mate Lydie for the pic of this wording which, of course, originally read Vivre en Languedoc Roussillon . . .

And why not? It's a very nice place to live. But while there may be moments when it's hard to spot the difference, Ivre, of course, means pissed . . .

samedi 17 septembre 2011

On the other hand, if it's good enough for Brigitte . . .

Well, if you wanted to make a blog piece about cabbage look interesting, I figure you'd use a bit of ingenuity too . . .

I was looking for a snappy intro for my pet choucroute recipe, and promptly discovered that BB was at one time famous for a kind of beehive hairdo, randomly piled up on the top of her head.

It was known as la choucroute, due to its supposed resemblance to a pile of finely-chopped cabbage à la mode Alsacienne.

That's not, on the face of it, terribly complimentary so I figure that any cabbage patch doll gags are seriously out . . . particularly as Madame Bardot remains to this day a pretty tough cookie.

The more observant among you will have noticed that I cunningly selected a pic of BB not wearing la choucroute. This is purely because it was free . . .

Choucroute is, of course, the French take on sauerkraut, which doubtless stems from the German habit of wandering into Alsace-Lorraine and staying there for 70 years or so.

The region remains to a large extent bilingual; though it's an old joke that if you ever receive a letter from that part of the world, it will be full of mistakes, because everyone there can speak both French and German but can't spell either of them.

Being as the snappy intro has now rambled on long enough to be in danger of becoming floppy, I'd better get on with the recipe . . .

Strictly-speaking you ought to make choucroute using proper fermented and preserved cabbage. The problem is that they don't stock it all the year round in deepest SW France so my version is a dodge to solve the problem.

*Select your favourite bits of pork: I use chunks of shoulder ham and two smoked sausages, together with a couple of pork chops or the same weight of belly pork. It's another good way to reduce the French pork chop mountain, but belly pork is tastier, though you should remove the bones. Thick bacon would be great if you can get it.

*Peel about eight small potatoes and cut into two or three pieces. I love red potatoes for this because they stay firm without being hard.

*Fry an onion and three cloves of garlic in oil, in a cast-iron casserole. I like to use huile de noix (walnut oil), but olive or sunflower is fine.

*Add your meat and continue to fry until the pork is white. Chop up or pierce the smoked sausage, because that lets the fat and juices out into the whole dish.

*Chop as finely as possible half a cabbage. Add this together with a vegetable stock and a mug of water. Add a couple of good sloshes of vinagre du vin aromatisé de noix (walnut vinegar).

*Add a teaspoonful of paprika, a third of a teaspoonful of nutmeg, several sprigs of marjoram leaves, fresh if possible, flourish of freshly-ground black pepper and salt to taste.

*Cover and bring to boil, reduce heat to a simmer. You can simmer vigorously until potatoes and cabbage are cooked, say 20-25 minutes. Serves 3-4.

*But . . .

I think it's better to leave the casserole on a low flame, add a touch more water and leave it to cook for about an hour while you nip down to the CafédeFa for a couple of beers before dinner.

That's what we did, naturally . . .

lundi 12 septembre 2011

And yea verily: There could not be life without cheese

Let us taste No.2 in an occasional series of blindingly obvious subjects for a blog supposedly about France - le fromage.

I've always been a bit of a cheese monster myself, hence the almost biblical pearl of philosophy in today's text . . . I mean headline.

But perhaps I'm guilty of taking one of life's essential pleasures for granted. As with wine and castles, we're unlikely to suffer a cheese shortage round here during any foreseeable circumstances.

I am, of course, putting aside such remote possibilities as the Third Inter-Galactic Cheese War, predicted to take place after the Zargatrons of Planet Thargs invade our famed manic mountain, Pic Bugarach, for The End of The World. Brie will fight them on the beaches . . .

But as the French say: il n'y a pas de quoi en faire un fromage, literally: there isn't anything to make a cheese out of . . . a handy idiom which means: it's nothing to make a big deal about. I am indebted as always to girlfriend Claire for her knowledge of the finer points of la belle langue.

Of course, the truly great have never underestimated the importance of cheese. It goes without saying that both De Gaulle and Churchill had their two-pennorth on the subject.

De Gaulle's was the more despairing of his compatriots: "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?" Churchill was altogether more generous: "A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die," he said of France in 1940.

But the last word really has to go to the noted gastronome Monsieur Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "A meal without cheese is a beautiful woman with an eye missing." Passionate stuff, eh? Almost blood-curdling.

In terms of sheer unadulterated cheesiness, one does come across the odd British attempt to beat the French at their own game: The British Cheese Board claims that there are 700 registered cheeses in the UK, while there are generally reckoned to be 350-400 of the French species.

Whilst I don't like dear old Blighty to sink without trace in culinary contests of this nature, I can't help being a bit sceptical. I strongly suspect that many of the 700 are esoterica of the Old Scruttock's Spotted Jockstrap variety. They may well exist but you're unlikely to find them down at Tesco's.

On running my eye down the rival lists, about 25 fromages français passed the Ones You've Actually Heard Of Test, as a pose to a mere 14 for Royaume Uni. Not actually nul point, but a bit scanty nonetheless.

I suppose we're lucky that even this many British cheeses survived the 1960s government/big business conspiracy to wean us all onto plastic cheddar, with an occasional seasoning of that other mighty Britannic masterpiece . . . Edam.

But even les français have their moments plastiques: A coach party from round here once went to visit the famed roquefort caves. Ah! Roquefort: le roi des fromages, à mon avis . . .

They duly took the tour with great pleasure. Except for one wily old Monsieur, a man most nasally gifted. Why? he asked, do the great caves (cellars) not smell of cheese?

The problem is that roquefort is a ewe's milk cheese. Ewes only come into season twice a year. So sometimes there is no real roquefort maturing. But visitors do not want to tour an empty cave.

Thus it is someone's job to put 10,000 decoy plastic cheeses on the shelves. And then in due season, as the le roquefort nouveau is once again enthroned, to take them all away again. You might say it's a bit of a con: Mais il n'y a pas de quoi en faire un fromage . . .

dimanche 11 septembre 2011

Shock sighting of 'The Real World' quite near Fa

Delightful as life is in the leafy idyll that is deepest Fa, I do suffer the periodic need to avert brain death, even if that is, in my case, something of a lost cause.

This probably explains why Claire and I like to drop in on the International Festival of Photojournalism at Perpignan, or Visa Pour L'Image as it's known in these parts.

Ironically, I forgot my own camera and have had to make do with this lash-up of the prog cover. I hope one Issouf Sanogo of Agence France-Presse won't mind me lifting his pic, as after all it is a plug for the event.

The show is held in a dazzling multiplicity of crumbly old buildings all over Perpignan. The pix are world class and it's all free to look around, so v. good value.

The biggest snag is that the city centre has been developed over many centuries, using nothing more complicated than Chaos Theory, a Ouija board and some pieces of string.

This means you can do a lot of walking in the wrong direction on a very hot day. Fortunately, it was our second visit so Claire and I achieved maximum images for minimum trudge, and retired for a pleasant lunch before overkill set in.

I must admit that I have a fairly low threshold for the traditional staples of hard news; war, drug crime and poverty, when exhibited in bulk. In the days when I used to lay out news pages, it was always a case of identifying the handful of images that best summed up a situation.

When a photographer displays maybe a hundred unremittingly gruesome images at once, it can lead to an unpleasant sense of voyeurism, even if life and limb were risked to take them.

But the show had its sublime moments like Brian Skerry's Ocean Soul; stunningly beautiful photos of marine life, brilliantly calculated to appeal to The Last House's notoriously devout sense of feeshness. More importantly, Skerry alerts us to how many of the pictured species are at risk.

And then there was Peter Dench's hilarious England, the Uncensored Version; wonderful images of the English in plonker and slapper mode, their unrivalled dress sense and legendary ability to hold their booze without throwing up and looking stupid (not). This set was a massive hit with French viewers . . .

Why am I not surprised about this?

jeudi 8 septembre 2011

How could I possibly have forgotten the wine ??

Comes the turning of the season, and the luscious grape is yet burgeoning upon the groaning vine . . . blah, blah, etc, etc and other such likewise pseudo-poetic arty bollocks.

It's no good; I shall have to come clean. Somehow in more than two years of Le Blog Normalement Persistente, I have never yet managed to mention les vendanges, or grape harvest.

Not only is this France, but it is my self-imposed mission to chronicle, both exhaustively and exhaustingly, the mélange of minor details that constitute the calendar hereabouts. Oops . . .

What's even more puzzling is that girlfriend Claire and I are normally pretty switched on to the pre-autumnal Season of Plenty which has just started.

Claire's last act before departing back to work at the lycée in Canet, was to compose some deeply fab blackberry jam, which is already disappearing at a rate of knots. In but a few weeks, I shall be persuading her to make some more crème de marron from our usually gigantic sweet chestnut harvest.

It has to be said that it is a thoroughly balls-aching job to peel umpteen chestnuts, when you can buy the finished item for a mere €1 a pot down at le supermarché. But Claire's crème de la crème de marron is a sheer delight, and not to be mentioned even on the same planet as some contemptible commercial item.

And only yesterday I selected the first of the purple figs, our own dear couilles du Pape (alias the Pope's bollocks; see expositions, previous). Thus it is strange, as well as a major clanger, to have somehow omitted the grape harvest.

Matters came to a head when Niffy Louis, Fa's Undisputed Champion Layabout announced down at le café that he was going to work for a couple of weeks. When we'd picked ourselves off the floor and the walls had stopped cracking with shock, all became clear: He was going to help with les vendanges . . .

It should be explained that les vendanges is just about the only paid work you can do in France without it affecting your dole money . . . evidently there is one sacred place where even l'administration* fears to tread . . . imagine the row if there were no-one to pick the grapes. There again, there is no need for self-inflicted mental cruelty.

Thus forcibly reminded, I selected a suitable quill with a view to recalling a few vendanges moments: I must admit that I never done it myself. Back in 2002, the first year we were here, my old mate Andrew did les vendanges.

He told me that he'd never worked harder in his life than for those nine days. Being as Andrew was no stranger to 18-hour days during his tougher moments in business, I regarded this information rather as a warning . . . and thereafter kept my distance. As a nifty-fingered guitarist, I also have a natural aversion to le secateur.

You can always tell that the harvest has started, because as soon as all the camper van drivers are locked up back in their coven (or wherever it is that they lurk out of season), they are immediately replaced by Postman Pat tractors.

These vehicles, towing trailers full of grapes, always look as though they've been put in a vice and squashed, just like PP's van in the aforementioned kid's prog. I figure they have to be narrow to get between the vines.

Being not very stable, they have a top speed of about 20km/hour. However, most of us do want wine, even as we don't want camper vans, so this is a time to be calm and zen when you are late for an appointment and stuck behind a PP tractor.

Just a short while after les vendanges, we will have la fête du vin nouveau. This is when we all get together for a discreet tincture, or preview of the new wine.

I'd strongly advise you not to get pissed on it: New wine possesses all sorts of deeply interesting molecules, most of them not yet mellowed by maturity. Now you may not believe in all that End of the World tosh, which I am prone to ridicule periodically. But faced with le hangover du vin nouveau, you may well be moved to reconsider. Patience is a virtue: You have been warned . . .

* I have been forbidden by Claire to make further excessively satirical comment on French bureaucracy. This is because les magnifiques fonctionnaires à la prefecture changed my driving licence in a stunningly efficient nine days. Considering that both the photo and the address on my old English one were deeply out of date, they were remarkably obliging. Merci!

dimanche 21 août 2011

Once in cooking mode, I might just as well continue

I admit it: I am a devout foodie. Which probably explains why I have chosen to live in France. Few things cheer me so much as when I come up with another recipe that works.

This is important because I almost never use cook books. When I first started to cook, I couldn't make head or tail of them. It seemed so much easier to make it up as I went along. These days I do occasionally try to make someone else's stuff, and I'm not averse to flicking through a tome or two for good ideas.

But I remain, essentially, an improv cook. Give me a few oddments lurking in the bowels of a disreputable fridge, and I love the challenge of seeing what I can come up with. I seem to be on a roll today. Having already scored with the Coquilles St Jacques with basil and pasta, I then turned my attention to some pork.

For some reason, we get periodic gluts of pork chops here in France. You get to buy boxes of 12 at about 2€/kilo. I kid you not; it's ridiculous. I just bag them up and freeze them. However, given so great a surfeit of terminated pig, you really do have to ring the changes to avoid boredom.

Thus I have been toying with the idea of Chillied pork with figs and cider. This intriguing concoction came to mind after some munificent guest presented girlfriend Claire and myself with a couple of bottles of organic cider.

Now it might seem dangerous to stage a head-on crash between the cuisines of northern France and the Mediterranean, but the essential principle is sound: Pork just loves it hot and sweet. So here goes:

Chillied pork with figs and cider

Slash up an onion and three cloves of garlic, fry in olive oil in an iron casserole on the top of the stove.

Add one or two pork chops per person, according to size of chop and known appetites and fry until meat is all white.

Add a mug-full of dry cider, six chopped up dried figs, vegetable stock cube, two bay leaves, chopped fresh basil and oregano, teaspoon of paprika, ground black pepper and chopped hot, fresh red chillies to taste.

I'd say basically the hotter the better, but make sure you can still enjoy it. This is, after all, the point of the exercise . . .

Bring to boil, cut heat to simmer, and add a bit more cider if needed. You don't want the meat to be swimming, but you do need enough liquid for the meat to cook in.

Adjust heat to low flame, put the top on the casserole and cook for about an hour. If necessary, remove lid and simmer to reduce sauce.

You could equally do all the frying in a frying pan, transfer the mixture to a ceramic casserole and cook it in the oven. The choice is yours. Personally I don't, because I've got a crap oven.

We served ours with boiled red potatoes in their skins with chives and fresh butter, plus garden peas. It seemed to work.

Holy Grail? It must be the secret disappearing abbey

You may have gathered that our surrounding countryside is positively packed with serious source material for anything barmy that you care to mention: the Holy Grail, the End of the World, the Life of Brian, etc . . .

Montségur, most famous of the Cathar castles, is usually top tip for the Grail castle, but I have a brand new theory that l'Abbaye de Villelongue, St Martin le Vieil, somewhere vaguely near Carcassonne, is swiftly rising up the charts as a hot rival.

For a start, I'm convinced that the bloody place is a mirage. Every time we try to visit it, something goes wrong. The first time, girlfriend Claire tried to go there with a visiting mate of mine and the car broke down.

Then Claire, the said mate and I tried to include it in another day out, and we ran out of time. Some weeks later, Claire and I finally got there to discover that it closes early on Saturday afternoons.

The staff tried to tell us that we couldn't go round because they were preparing for somebody's wedding, but I think that's all just a front. They've got the Holy Grail; they just don't want to show it to us.

Of course, that could just be my latest conspiracy theory. After all it's stupid enough to hold its own amongst all the other ludicrous theories already circulating in deepest Loonsville, SW France.

Having wasted an hour and a quarter, desperately seeking the elusive Abbaye (12th century Cistercian and quite cute, should you ever have the extreme good fortune to prevent it absconding occultly over the horizon . . .), it's good to know that there's other things you can do nearby to save the day from total disaster.

The pic with fab sky is the village church at Montolieu, a kind of French Hay-on-Wye, and thus replete with an abundance of bookshops. Obviously most of the books are in French, but the
ambiance of secondhand bookshops is always agreeable if you like that sort of thing.

It is indeed a very pleasant village to wander round. We found a decent restaurant and didn't hurry over lunch. There's also La Coopérative, a very classy art gallery in the village's converted wine cave. I'm told that this risks losing its grant aid, so get there quick. Firstly you won't miss out, and secondly, increased visitor numbers will help make the case to keep it going.

Also within shouting distance is le château de Saissac; another tick in your Observer's Book of Castles and definitely worth a visit. France may have its privations, but lack of castles in Languedoc-Roussillon isn't one of them.

Changing subject completely, I couldn't resist the temptation to inflict another recipe on you. This one's for coquilles St Jacques (alias scallops) and it's a complete doddle to make:

Coquilles St Jacques with basil and pasta

Chop fine and fry an onion and two cloves of garlic in olive oil, in a non-stick wok or frying pan.

Add 500g coquilles St Jacques, a vegetable stock cube, chopped basil, teaspoon of paprika, flourish of freshly-ground black pepper and a slosh of white wine.

Bring to a simmer and keep it there for five minutes.

Add three tablespoons of crème fraîche, bring back to simmer for another five minutes.

Whilst sauce is being cooked, prepare enough spaghetti for four people, adding salt, black pepper, a dash of olive oil and chopped basil.

Serve coquilles in sauce on top of spaghetti.

Bon appetit
!

PS: To get to Montolieu, take the RN113 towards Toulouse from Carcassonne, and turn right onto the D624 after Pezens.

jeudi 28 juillet 2011

Cro-Magnon - an epic saga of Early Modern Humans

I've always rather liked the name Cro-Magnon. It's got that epic feel; a worthy adversary to Conan the Librarian, as my mate Dave le Philosophe deftly malaprops it.

I have to admit that it came as a surprise to me, when I finally figured out some years ago that Cro-Magnon was not actually the hero of some Planet Tharg-worthy sci-fi caper (as denoted by the rather fanciful pic).

It is, of course, the name of the site in the Dordogne, where the remains of these guys were first dug up. They date from about 28,000 years ago. The French seem to do seriously well at all this very, very old stuff. They also have plenty of real dinosaurs, just down the road from me at Espéraza.

And, of course, there are the world-famous cave paintings at Lascaux, which Monsieur C-M seems to have doodled while taking a break from beating the crap out of sabre-toothed tigers.

But, no matter, Cro-Magnon is actually an Occitan word meaning "big cave", which still has the right macho feel: You can just imagine some great, hairy Cro-Magnon come barging in at dinnertime.

He hurls the sabre-toothed tiger at the good lady wife by way of affectionate greeting. Then he dumps himself down on the yak skin sofa and roars for his Double Mammoth Burgers With Extra Entrails.

Now you may feel that this is all a bit sexist, but apparently it was just what those Paleolithic women liked. Pre-historians believe that in the Hunter-Gatherer era, Gathering actually produced more food than Hunting.

But given the choice of a hunting hunk (Hey babe, look at the size of my sabre-toothed etc . . .) and some wimp with a bowl of elderberries, which one do you think the girls went for? Yup, you guessed it.

Of course, our impression might just be in the names. Cro-Magnon sounds tough and so does Neanderthal. But it's a matter of total chance, the places where they were dug up. I mean to say, Frinton Man or Chantilly Man might seem distinctly more effete. Limp even.

But PC gets everywhere: Cro-Magnon is no more. Scientists have decided that these guys really weren't that much different from ourselves. They have changed the name to Early Modern Humans.

What a letdown. Is this the sort of man to start a riot at the World Underwater Yak-Strangling Championships? I bet they stayed at home, counted lentils and did the washing up. That's what progress does for you.

dimanche 17 juillet 2011

For the man who has everything - the inflatable 2CV

Well there you have it, a full-size, blow-up, Citroën Deux Chevaux. Definitely a must for the dedicated gadget man, or even one in a sad and slightly strange love affair with the automobile.

Obviously the dear old 2CV is still now, as always, iconically French. My mate Dave le Philosophe has a deliciously decrepit example called Fifi, in which he clatters unsonorously around the neighbourhood.

I spotted the pneumatic version in the foyer of LeClerc, obviously advertising something. Not recognising the brand name, I thought and rather hoped, that this would be one of those wonderful ad stunts where the actual product is quite irrelevant, and may only be mentioned later, should the advert pick up an award.

Actually, the reality was far more fun. I asked girlfriend Claire if she'd ever heard of Cochonou. I was promptly castigated for ignorance and duly took my bollocking like a man.

Cochonou is apparently an exceedingly well-known brand of sausage . . . thus destroying the 2CV's credibility with the Lentil Brigade. When I was a kid, back in the 70s, it was la voiture absolument obligatoire for eco-veggie beardy types. Latterly, the car only stayed in production thanks to this niche market.

I suppose the red-checkered livery did rather suggest charcuterie and, come to think of it, the name Cochonou is somewhat suggestive of pork . . . Durrrh. Poor old 2CV. How are the tinny fallen.

We at The Last House wish to register a complaint

I was idly searching through my stats the other day to see who, if anybody, actually peruses the dear old chron.

I found that in response to some hapless reader's search for The Last House before Spain, bloody Google had strung up an advert for El Cheapo Repossessed Spanish Villas.

I ask you, is this either right or decent? As any fule kno (molesworth), the real Last House belongs to Claire's mum and is deeply classy.

Quite apart from the fantastical assortment of wrought iron decorating the roof, it was actually the elegant mountain hideaway of a very posh opera singer.

If I've got the story vaguely right, the legendary diva (whose name escapes me) sang at La Scala c.1900, escaped to her house in the Pyrenees when her lovers got over-excited, and expired, rather young and possibly romantically, c.1940.

Repossessed Spanish Villas indeed. I could complain to Google mais je pisse dans un violon. This appropriately musical idiom translates as I'd be pissing in a violin.

It's the best one I've heard from Claire in a while, and is the French equivalent of flogging a dead horse. Hence the two bone idle gees sunning themselves under some more of the diva's elegant ironwork.

mardi 5 juillet 2011

Voilà Madame Fred, France's Queen of Crime

I've always liked a good detective yarn, especially PD James or Dorothy L Sayers, so I'm grateful to girlfriend Claire for turning me on to France's own Queen of Crime, Fred Vargas.

Actually, Claire is steadily working her way through my complete PD James, which makes it a bit of a return match.

Apart from the fact that doing lots more reading in French is exceedingly character-building and generally good for me, Madame Fred can spin a enjoyable yarn with the best of them.

You will gather that in real life, Fred is a she, and also a professional medieval historian. Her pen name, of course, comes from the Humphrey Bogart character in that rather stodgy Hollywood saga, The Barefoot Countess.

I suppose Fred is about the equivalent of our own Ruth Rendell, being neither as venerable as PD James or as dead as Dorothy L Sayers.

Her suitably eccentric top flic is one Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, nondescript scruffy prong and all-round male slapper, but clearly a super-talented 'tec. He spends a fair amount of time out with the fairies, vaguely following even vaguer thoughts that no can make head or tail of, including himself. But naturally he nearly always gets his man.

The intermittent love of his life is the hapless Camille, to whom he is chronically unfaithful, without actually ever giving much thought as to why he inevitably behaves this way. Understandably, she then disappears for the next couple of books or so, causing him to pine in between murders. Latterly he seems to have acquired a couple of children, whilst remaining equally clueless as to how this might have come about.

Women-wise, he is usually on much safer ground with hyper-competent colleague Lieutenant Violette Retancourt, an exceptionally intelligent woman with a hidden heart of gold and the figure of an all-in wrestler.

Adamsberg also relies on loyal support from his deputy, Commandant Adrien Dangland, a single father of five, a formidable intellect and consummate sinker of white wine.

There's the usual cast of off-beat supporting characters, notably Les Evangelistes: Matthieu, Marc et Luc; three penniless historians who live in an old wreck of a house, la baraque pourrie, that they're supposed to be restoring in lieu of rent. The boys are usually up for helping with a bit of undercover work, always resourceful and generally all-round good value.

Just now, I'm head down in Fred's latest, L'Armée Furieuse. So far, a couple of people have apparently been struck down by supernatural horsemen in Normandy.

Meanwhile back in Paris a petty arsonist has been fitted up for the murder of a top industrialist, and Adamsberg has been threatened with the sack (as seems to be usual chez Madame Fred), if he doesn't solve the case in a week or so. The plot thickens. It's all rattling good fun.

lundi 4 juillet 2011

Bloody summer ate my hanging baskets . . .

It has to be said that so far this year, summer is, and continues to be, totally unreliable.

We spent most of June in a miserable gris anglais au château Thames Embankment, as dear old Rumpole might conceivably have put it.

Then the minute I nip off to Canet chez Claire, the sand is so hot that it burns my feet, and I come home of a Sunday evening to discover that the unforeseen heatwave has fried the hanging baskets.

There is no avoiding the fact that this pisses me off more than somewhat. The entire pocket paradise which is mon petit jardin chez Boulevard de La Pinouse, only consists of three jardinières and two hanging baskets.

Or to be strictly accurate, said baskets plus as many pots of assorted 'erbs as I can perch on the mini decking outside the front door, without precipitating mass destruction of earthenware.

The crap temps (putain de merde!!!?@**!! and other naughty mots français) has seriously distressed the 'erbs as well. Normally je me régale, I thoroughly revel even, in a fresh and vigorous supply of the wonderful herbes du sud.

That is to say, all that lovely, sunny, fresh stuff, alien to beleaguered Ongleterry unless you're a gardening genius: Basil, tarragon, marjoram, oregano . . . and . . . and . . . etc. You get the point.

This year, the 'erbs have merely sulked, while perversely you can't move for marauding armies of weeds, steadily strangling the surrounding countryside.

To date, I have just about managed to accomplish this year's modest goal of making a fresh version of that classic French combination, fines herbes. To prove my point, we see chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon, photogenically disposed about ye venerable chopping board.

I lobbed them into a chicken dish, and am still somewhat undecided about the outcome. The distinctive tang of tarragon seemed to kick the others into touch. I don't yet know quite what to make of chervil, which I've never had the opportunity to use before. It seems to taste rather like a feeble version of tarragon, whilst having certain coriandrical visual tendencies.

In fact the whole mix seemed merely to be a way to bulk out tarragon when you haven't got enough of it. Which was apt enough, given that only tonight (le 4 juillet, Mon bleeding Dieu . . .) did I finally have enough of the real thing to make my much belovéd chicken and mushroom à l'estragon.

I think I may have sketched out this recipe before, but quickly to recap:

If you fry up onions, garlic and chunks of chicken thigh in olive oil in an iron casserole . . .

Add tarragon, paprika, black pepper, veg stock cube, a dash of nutmeg and salt . . .

Chopped mushrooms, some water, and a generous slosh of white wine . . .

Bring to boil, cover then leave it to play with itself on a low heat for a couple of hours . . .

Uncover and simmer until sauce reduces to an agreeable thickness . . .

It tastes divine served with new potatoes, which you can dunk in the tarragon sauce during the final moments of culinary orgasm.

I often think that nutmeg, or muscade as they call it hereabouts, is a greatly underrated spice. You can bounce all sorts of other flavours off it. Not only against tarragon but against basil, with paprika and maybe a touch of chili for a classy ratatouille.

Or to broaden the flavour of a chili con carne, when mixed with paprika, especially when you're stuck for fresh chilis and have to make do with dried. Or against fresh thyme and marjoram in a good beef stew.

Talking of marjoram, it seems to be the one 'erb which has held its own this year; it's even given the weeds a run for their money.