dimanche 15 avril 2012

Beware: Suits can seriously damage your health

In the early summer you couldn’t move in France for giant pictures of men in suits and women in more suits. This was because we were having a presidential election. Should Sarko survive? Or would hot-tip Hollande hustle his way in? Did anybody care?

A rogues’ gallery des cons en costumes even festooned the Mairie wall at Fa. They claimed to be of different flavours; left, right, centre, green, far-right, far-left, off the planet etc, but were all exactly the same: i.e. bureaucrats.

The only one that caught my eyes was the green candidate, advertising her two major rallies; one is in Paris, the other in
Grenoble. Being it's quicker to fly to the UK than to get to either place from here, I ask myself: what on earth has this got to do with us? Alternatively, should you be an ardent green intent wasting all that fossil fuel to attend your rallies, how would you live with yourself afterwards?

The biggest drawback with British politics is having to vote for a politician. In
France the problem is being stuck with an un-choice of ten bureaucrats. Not one of them understands that all ordinary people want is less paper and more jobs. If any of them do, not one of them is in the slightest way capable of achieving it.

Most people I know said they had no-one to vote for. An underwhelmed nation yawned . . .

In the event  Le Grand Suitissimmo himself, self-styled Monsieur Normale, François Hollande won. This was with hindsight inevitable, as the already forgotten Nicolas Sarkozy pretty much had to lose, having promised absolument everything to absolument everybody whilst delivering on about 2% of it.

Actually Hollande isn’t quite as normale as he makes out. For a start his full moniker is François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, which even gives Charles Philip Arthur George a run for his money, and strikes me as being just un peu pretentieux for any genuine homme du gauche . . . bet the Hollande family didn’t go sans culottes when he was a lad.

In addition to being the 24th President of France, I’m intrigued to find that he is also ex-officio Co-Prince of Andorra. So perhaps his dear old père knew what he was doing when he lined the boy François up with all those names.

Having become Le Prés, Hollande and les Socialistes then went on to gain an absolute majority in the legislative elections, accompanied naturally by lots more giant pictures of men in suits and women in more suits. These days the two elections are run one straight after other in France, which does have the potentially intelligent effect of having Président and legislature both on the same side, politically-speaking.

In this case, the boy François has carte blanche to wipe such modest achievements as Nicolas Sarkozy may truthfully lay claim to, straight off the face of la belle France, and indeed he is rapidly doing so, even as we speak. In some ways it’s a bit of a shame; Sarkozy did understand the need to bring the French economy kicking and screaming into possibly even the 19th century. He just didn’t do anything about it.

So then, Sarko, where did it all go wrong? Well son . . . you really mustn’t make all those promises without fulfilling at least a few of them.

You really shouldn’t abolish (as promised) an unfair tax on the millions of self-employed who voted you in, and instantly replace it with another unfair tax of exactly the same amount.

It wasn’t too bright to try to give your son a seriously cushy top industry post, when his only qualification was being related to you. Even le petit Sarko twigged this one and refused the job, realising it would reduce any shred of cred he may have possessed to zéro.

And of course the hot wife card never played quite right. Personally I’m a big fan of la belle Michelle, intelligent, well-informed, derrière délectable, loved by all and frankly one of Obama’s biggest assets. Madame Carla on the other hand just made Sarko look over-privileged, even if it was mostly her dosh. Tant pis, c’est fini. Comment te dire adieu?

So Fa, so good . . . such a lovely day en plein soleil

In Fa it were always raining . . . except on days when it were fine.

We are having a prolonged outburst of weather. This is quite normal at this of year, and we shouldn't grumble, because all that lovely rain is essential, if we are later to avoid running out of water.

Nonetheless, it's always disconcerting to be bloody freezing in April, and it came as a distinct relief to feel the sun on our backs on Easter Monday, for the first time in five years or so.

I'll admit that I've been less than brisk in bringing this minor matter to your attention, but after all this is Fa, so where's the hurry? Here we see my mate Georges and my mate Peggy among the usual suspects, gaffing on happily over un petit coup de vin after our traditional omelette.

dimanche 8 avril 2012

Suffering French total curry deprivation? Don't panic

When an Englishman feels a little homesick, it is only natural, if not very logical, that he should seek solace in a cuisine hailing from a different continent, a mere 5,000 miles away, c'est à dire - le curry.

At the first sign of a touch of the Madhur Jaffreys, he is inclined to break into a cold sweat. He has used up the last of his stash of curry sauces and here, ensconced in his petit coin français, you either can't buy them or they're ludicrously expensive.

Wrong. Whilst the French themselves are not terribly switched on to Indian cuisine, all you have to do is to locate your friendly neighbourhood Arab supermarket. North African cuisine (delicious in itself) shares almost all the common Indian spices.

France has a large and, in general, badly-paid Arab population, so not only can you obtain these spices, but you can also buy them as staples, i.e. €1.50 for a decent-sized bag, rather than €4 for a few specks in the bottom of a pretty packet.

It's useful to know the French/Arab names, though such labels as cumin, coriandre, paprika, fenugrec and cardamom (green) are not exactly rocket science. Then there's fenouil/fennel, canelle/cinnamon. I'll admit it took me a while to twig curcuma, which is turmeric. I think the only stuff I regularly use that I haven't sourced here are black cardomoms, curry leaves and tamarind.

While you're about it, why not invest in a packet of ras el hanout and some harissa. Ras el hanout is a North African basic spice mix not a million miles from a garam masala, so you can start bringing an oriental flavour to Mediterranean foods.

is a chili paste, allowing you to spark up your meal to your own taste, brilliant on kebabs. Talking of which, if you want a decent kebab in France, then look no further than your nearest Arab quarter; though in Toulouse, it's practically the standard takeaway.

It's also a good dodge, should you invite French friends to try a proper curry. I've generally found French people unaccustomed to hot dishes; so you can make the curry mild and lob a dollop of harissa into your own. Some like it hot.

mercredi 4 avril 2012

Top tiresome classic novels: No1 - Jude the Obscure

It has to be said that yer man Hardy's last novel is one of those books in which all the main characters could do with a good slapping.

I have had a copy of the aforementioned tome floating about on my bookshelves for longer than I care to remember, and last week I finally got around to reading it.

Of course, the hapless Jude Fawley has the crowning misfortune to be lead bloke in a Thomas Hardy novel. But despite the list of handicaps, with which he is liberally endowed even by Hardy standards, does he have to be such a prong?

It's tough enough on a penniless working class orphan circa 1860 that he has a driving ambition to study at Christminster, alias Oxford, university. But the biggest problem with the chap is that he's none too bright.

Jude is a born no-hoper. At no point in his short existence does he possess the slightest hope, professional or personal, except when suffering one of his frequent bouts of self-delusion. Even given dear old Tom's legendary penchant for unremitting gloom, this does tend to flat-line the plot rather.

Then there are the women in his life; the Borgias couldn't have concocted a more toxic pair than Arabella and dear little Sue. I can't help feeling that Hardy must have been suffering a profound bout of misogyny when he dreamed up these two, on account of his own less than thrilling marriage. The first Mrs H obviously thought something of the kind and hated the book accordingly.

Arabella is a heartless, rustic slapper. She's none too bright either but nonetheless possesses enough animal cunning to con Jude into marrying her not once but twice. The first time she's supposed to be pregnant but actually isn't. According to Arabella, any reasonably intelligent husband should be perfectly happy to give up literacy and splash out most of his dosh on her, in exchange for a reasonably regular spot of rumpy-pumpy. But Jude is not like this.

Even more unfortunately, the real love of Jude's life is dear little Sue, a neurotic prick-teaser who is slightly brighter than Arabella, but an even bigger all-round pain in the arse. The major point of the book is supposedly to question the morality of Victorian marriage. However it's quite clear that dear little Sue would make life hell for any bloke stupid enough to have anything to do with her under any circumstances, marital or otherwise. She is simply All-Time World Champion Commitment Phobe.

In order to make Jude's life hell, dear little Sue first marries the unfortunate schoolmaster Phillotson, for no cogent reason whatever, other than to make his life hell as well. Phillotson is the sole character to wise up by the end of the book and thus escape his share of the slapping.

Having discovered that being kind to dear little Sue causes him to lose his job, his reputation and render himself almost destitute, Phillotson finally gets tough when his awful wedded wife decides to make Jude's life even more hell than usual by coming back to him. He makes dear little Sue swear on the bible to stop pissing him about and demands his marital rights in full. It's all a bit tacky but I can't say that I altogether blame him.

Just to cheer things up along the way, Hardy arranges the death of all four of Jude's children, in a scene so melodramatic as to cause blushes in the doom-laden fleshpots of Albert Square.

Jude is left with no alternative but to expire tragically and inevitably by means of a heady brew of pining and wasting. Arabella doesn't give a toss and has already lined up her next suitor. Apart from that it's all quite fun.

I can't help thinking that Hardy was born too early and missed his true vocation. If he'd lived today, he could have enjoyed a fine career as a scriptwriter for EastEnders and made a fortune out of the psychopathically miserable Essex Novels.

You may have gathered that I wasn't just too convinced by Jude; give me The Mayor of Casterbridge any time. Michael Henchard may well be a congenital tosser but you can't help admiring his guts.

A nice gourmet touch: hachis parmentier de mouton

Très exotique hein? Well, not exactly mon brave. Le hachis parmentier de mouton, so I'm reliably informed, is French for shepherd's pie.

I must admit that I've long been harbouring a craving for this most traditional of English dishes, beloved of dear old Keef Richards and moderately dear old Jeffröech Archcreep. The problem is that Intermarché and its fellow supermarché suspects do not stock minced lamb.

They all have giant cow-grinding machines for churning out steak haché, but nothing for lamb. Mind you, when you consider that dismantling one of these things must be akin to cleansing the bowels of hell, I can quite understand their reluctance to whop through half a kilo of retired sheep, just for me.

Then last week my mate Deb bequeathed me a mincer. A quick wind of the handle and in no time at all, a suitable wodge of tranche avec os (slice of leg of lamb) came mincing out of its nether regions.

Meanwhile the wild herbs are once again flourishing on the slerpes of the age-old hills of Fa, so it was my first chance this year to use fresh thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, thus adding a certain Gallic élan to our nosh anglais basique.

So . . . Hachis parmentier de mouton: first peel two shepherds (the old ones are the best ones . . . I nicked that one off Graeme Garden in about 1977 . . .)

*Peel your spuds, cut up and start boiling for the mash.

* Fry up your mince, onions and garlic.

*Add sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf.

A muslin bag or similar is a good idea for the rosemary, because it's not ideal to leave the rather tough leaves in the sauce afterwards. You can simply retrieve the thyme sprigs and bay leaf before adding the mash topping.

*Add a third of a teaspoon of nutmeg, a teaspoon of paprika, veg stock cube, a slosh of red wine, a cup of water and salt and pepper to taste.

*Bring to boil then simmer for 20mins, keeping an eye on the sauce, you don't want it thin and watery, but obviously it shouldn't get dry either.

*Finish the mash, adding butter, milk, salt and pepper to taste.

*Spoon mash over meat sauce, put in hot oven for 20 minutes to crisp up the topping.

I should have served it with peas but I forgot.

A snippet with parsnips:

I may previously have inferred that I am not a great fan of parsnips. However this is merely because I don't subscribe to English Ex-pat Christmas Craving Syndrome, a pernicious complaint if ever I came across one. I will admit to having considered them deeply overrated, but just lately I have experienced a parsnip epiphany.

Girlfriend Claire and I were dining out at the Café de Fa, when the guest chef served a delicious parsnip purée, deftly seasoned with cayenne pepper. This set me to pondering the evident sweet and sour possibilities of said vegetable.

As it happens, parsnips, alias les panais, have rather caught on in France; there's a bit of a fashion for rediscovering vintage veg just at the mo. So you no longer have to be an anglais suffering yuletide narcotic trauma to find them.

Having applied the allegedly mighty brain for a day or two, I came up with a handy veggie dish:

Cajun Parsnips with chickpeas and tomatoes

*Dice up a couple of decent-sized parsnips, three tomatoes, an onion and three cloves of garlic

*Fry the onions and garlic

*Add the parsnips, tomatoes, a 400g can of chickpeas, veggie stock cube and a mug of water.

* Season with a teaspoonful of Cajun spices and salt to taste. I'm bullshitting here a bit as I'm still investigating Cajun cuisine, however my packet contains dried thyme, pink onion, garlic, paprika, oregano, black pepper, white mustard seed, cayenne pepper and cumin.

This is definitely a dish where hot chili is supposed to bounce off the sweetness of the parsnips, so regulate the cayenne pepper to taste. Seasoned headbangers can lob in a couple of fresh chilies.

*Chop in some fresh coriander, though you could substitute fresh parsley if you're stuck for the coriander.

I always like to use some sort of fresh herb if humanly possible. I find that you can use parsley to suggest the freshness, while also using the dried version of the herb you actually want.

*Cover, bring to boil then simmer for 30 minutes, or until the parsnips are tender. As always, watch the water content of the sauce. Stir occasionally.

*Serve on its own, or with good bread and butter, or rice, or a bit of side salad.

Bon appetit!