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.