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

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!