Saturday, January 20, 2018

Spring Cleaning ...

The shouting and the tumult have died, and now that we actually have two liveable rooms on the ground floor and cupboards and bookcases to put things in, we find ourselves chucking quite a lot out. Having lived without stuff for over four years does tend to make you wonder if you really, really need it taking up space. Like, as it might be, kids' fluffy toys from twenty-odd years ago: but they are all up in the attic, preserved from my rapacious hands. You never know, we might have grand-children at some point, for whom these things will be precious antiques. Or not.

Anyways, it's looking pretty good down there now, with photos and a couple of ancient Malcolm Warr prints on the walls, and since yet another truck-load of furniture turned up from Emmaüs there are comfy chairs and the books in their bookcases, and above all NO MORE BLOODY BOXES (check off a number of trips to the tip with little Suzy, full of flattened-out cartons). But I have had to order yet more picture rails for the first-floor bedrooms and the stairwell, also some picture frames because although I have any number of photos they do actually have to be framed ...

There had been plans afoot to head off for a walk around the massif of la Clape on the 31st, followed by a seafood lunch at la Perle Gruissanaise, but as the sun came up unpropitiously for sheep (you know, red sky, all that, apparently they don't like it) things got changed around a bit and we and Rick & Mary and Martin & Angela and all five dogs headed off a bit north-west, destination a short (6.5km) walking circuit that would take us around to look at some Visigoth graves. (Big thank you! by the way to Rick & Mary for getting us out of bed around 8am, just in time for me to see the sunrise when walking the dogs. I am so not bitter about that.)

I'd sneered at the weather and taken my photographer's vest rather than a jacket (for one thing, it has pockets that hold a spare zoom) and kind of regretted that for the first half hour or so because up there in the Minervois, closer to the montagne Noire, the climate is emphatically not the same. Think, humid. And very green, compared to here - and it's only about 20km away.

Still, reminds you that life was nasty, brutal and above all short back then in the 9th century. Forty-odd graves - pits in the earth, lined and covered with flat slabs of stone - and most of them only a foot or so long. For children.

Whatever, I decided to do a decent New Year's day dinner for us and Bob! and his son Alex. It's become a tradition in France to eat game at Christmas, so during the week afterwards everything goes on special as the use-by date arrives and - without actually having had the express intent to do so when I left the house - I picked up a largeish piece of NZ venison that should have been eaten that very day and stuck it in to marinate for a couple of days, reckoning that bacteria can't read the labels, anyway the alcohol should kill the little buggers off ...

And at the market I'd had the good luck to find proper yams, aka the "oca de Pérou", which seem to be available once a year at this season: they cost an arm and a leg but what the hell, as far as I'm concerned they're a tradition. So they went into the oven with orange juice and butter and a bit of brown sugar to bubble away, along with some sprouts in a gratin dish with cream and wholegrain mustard and blue cheese, whilst I did a proper job of barding the venison with some Black Forest ham that just happened to be in the fridge, and stuck that in the other oven at 220°.

(Actually, it turns out that I can in fact find yams at other times of the year, in the local bio supermarket. But I still have to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford them, and as often happens in these places, where turnover is pretty slow, they get dumped on the shelves and left there for weeks until either some enthusiast buys them, or they go runny. I have standards: won't touch them once they've started to go flaccid.)

Of course there was still the marinade, and some mushrooms and bacon, so champignons à la bourguignonne were inevitable, and a clafouti aux abricots seemed a no-brainer so that was dessert taken care of ... we ate and drank with moderation (for a certain value of "moderation") and that's how we started the year.

I agree that it is a good thing that we, consumers, should be made aware of just what it is that we are actually buying, and I have no problem with the fact that the labelling on - say - a packet of flour tells me that it may contain gluten, traces of nuts and, eventually, bits of small woodland animals that thought it would be fun to play chicken with a combine harvester. So when, just the other day, I took a couple of ready-made cassolettes de St-Jacques, sauce au chardonnay from the freezer (I know, I know, but I got them to see if they were any good 'cos it's quite handy to have something to hand if necessary) I was not surprised at all to find the same sort of thing.

What did surprise me - bear with me please, I'm getting to the point - was that they felt obliged to note the the product "may contain traces of mollusks". I wonder, sometimes.

And as one thing segues into another, let me tell you about the latest leap in culinary technology ... over here in furrin parts, UHT cream comes in little TetraPak bricks: used to be that they were just that, you'd slice a corner off with a good sharp pair of scissors and you were good to go, these days they all come with little plastic spouts and a screw-on cap, as if you really needed the extra hassle when you're cooking, have wet slippery hands and wind up ripping the carton in half and losing most of the cream on the floor as you try to unscrew the damn thing ...

The actual point is that I needed some more the other day, to go into the pastry for my galettes du roi, and I could not help but notice, when I got them home, that the entirely superfluous extra packaging was trumpeting something New! and Improved! - yes! "Bigger spout! Pours faster!" This is your unique selling point? Humanity, I weep for thee.

On the brighter side, reports of the death of the traditional French bistrot are somewhat exaggerated. I had occasion to head off to Paris for a couple of days, doing a bit of work for the SNCF - and let me just say that the cold reality of a 90-minute commute via RER/Metro morning and evening really brings it home to me that I must, somehow, have led a life virtuous enough that I am spared this shit on a daily basis (unless I'm being saved for something rather more dire) - and rather than eat at the canteen J-P and Dénis took me off to a little bar near the centre of Vitry for lunch.

Ah, such things as to die for. OK, the décor is resolutely French 60's with tables in massive Formica and chromed tubular steel, but the omelettes! Huge and creamy, with ham and cheese, actually decent frites that resemble McDonald's pus-bags only in the shape, and a generous helping of salad with a sharp creamy sauce - and the next day a boeuf bourguignon, tender as you could hope for. True, the waitress told me off for not eating all my carrot purée "it'll make your butt look nice and attractive for Madame" (although I'm not sure exactly how that works) but I was allowed to have a coffee anyway.

So there's hope yet.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Body Electric/New Look ...

Well, it's great news in our little southern village, for the bar is to reopen beginning of February! We had begun to despair, for nothing moved, and then it did it again, and it kept on doing it, sporadically. But the other moaning we met Didier Deville, local fabulist historian and, incidentally, member of the conseil municipal, who told us that it was a done deal, and that the lucky winner would be announced on Monday. And then that evening, all gathered at Cash & Terry's (for it was a Friday), who should turn up with José but Magali and Lionel.

We know them, they live just down the road, and it seems that against all odds they won the beauty contest: despite the fact that they are not on the best of terms with our Dear Leader. So as they are nice level-headed people who have what seem to be good plans for the place we are happy for them - and also for us, for a year without a bar is a long time. Also, as they apparently have the support of the local greasy eminence, half the population of Moux will not feel that they have to boycott the place: which means that there's a better chance of it getting off the ground.

Angela and Martin turned up for dinner (and to recuperate their two dogs, who stayed with us whilst they swanned off to a Robert Plant gig in London) and so we had salade Lyonnaise, homard thermidor and - because I found more baby beetroot at the market that day - this. I'm not saying you have to rush out and make it, because it won't actually change your life, but it does make a nice change from the eternal carrot cake, and the colour is beautiful.

Personally I leave the walnuts out because I am not that fond of them: I omit the ginger too, because Margo's not keen on that, but you could always replace that with candied citrus peel if you'd like. Can't hurt. Also, double the quantity of cream cheese frosting (Rick complained) to which - in lieu of ginger - you could add either natural lemon oil or very finely grated (Microplane! Yay!) lemon zest.

Anyways, being as all the wall sockets in the dining room needed to be taken down for painting porpoises, I decided to explore the mystery that is electricity here in The Shamblings™. There was a wall-mounted thermostat for an electric radiator next to the window, but the radiator had long since gone AWOL; also, two power points at the back of the room on one of the long walls with, in time-honoured rustic DIY tradition, an extension cord leading from them, glued atop the skirting board along the back wall, to two other power points on the facing wall. "That lot", I thought to myself, "has to go", so I pulled the main fuse and, after checking that there was nothing that was in fact live, unwired the extension cord from the first two plugs.

A good start, and then I put the fuse back so that I had light to see by, and started to unwire the other end of the extension cord. I expect you see what's coming? I mean, my fault entirely and on top of it I know better, and I had absolutely no justification whatsoever for my belief that the extension cord took power from the first two power points to feed the other two. I said a few choice words as my thumb tingled, and resolved not to make the same mistake again.

And then there was the light fitting on the ceiling: it used to be considered good practice back in the day - before they mandated the use of pre-wired sockets and plugs - to at least tighten the screws on the little domino connectors that were used to hook up the wires from the light to the actual mains supply. This appears to have been thought unnecessary here, for the wires were just stuffed in to the connector. Which I found out, rather to my surprise, when I came to unhook the thing and the domino just fell to the floor as I touched it with a screwdriver.

I also removed the surplus-to-requirements thermostat: now the power point just next to it (which I guess once fed the now long-gone radiator) no longer works, although there is 220V on the phase pin. I strongly suspect that the thermostat was wired into neutral - electrically that works, of course, but it is highly illegal and may also be shockingly surprising to the unwary - and I shall check that out this weekend maybe, when I have time.

For everything else has now been done: the walls are painted, the floors are clean, furniture has been moved in - even the huge old 1950s buffet that used to occupy an unconscionable amount of space in the garage was lugged up the steps and installed, and then we put the termites to the sword.

And now, for the first time in over four years, we are confronted with the pleasant problem of actually having somewhere to put stuff, rather than living with it in stacked cartons. Why, even my stereo and record collection have come out of their long hibernation - still in working order! (Although I shall have to see if someone still sells things like CD lens cleaners, for my poor old player futters and starts madly at the slightest provocation.)

And then I went online and ordered 15m of picture rails, for there are photos and prints to be hung, and no way am I going to be sticking holes all over the wall for individual hooks only to decide "not the right place!". Again. Not the old heavily-varnished wooden mouldings I recall from my misspent youth, but flashy, slim-line aluminium rails, such as would not be out of place in an art gallery ...

As usual with that sort of thing, there was a whole stream of confirmation email: first to tell me that my bank account had been debited, that my order had been confirmed and would be processed as soon as possible, and a little caveat to the effect that internet boutiques are really difficult things to do and that even if something shows up as being in stock it might not really be so 'cos some other bastard got in before you. So you might not actually get what you ordered.

I like to think that I'm a reasonably tolerant person, and in any case I'm used to incompetence, so apart from a few mutterings along the lines of "How hard can it be? I used to write real-time stock-control systems, FFS" I was willing to let it go, but I must admit it was kind of annoying to read the fine print that said (more or less) "Should this be the case, we will of course reimburse you - probably within two or three weeks."

Whatever, I need not have worried - too much - for then I got a mail from the transporter to tell me that my order had been picked up and was ready for delivery, followed by one from the supplier to tell me much the same thing, but thoughtfully listing the items: which consisted of a gift voucher, a plastic pochette and a 1000-page catalogue. Not a mention of the picture rails I'd actually ordered, but then the next day there was another flurry of emails to let me know that a second package would soon be on its way, and that this one had what I wanted.

Then came yet another email from the transporter to let me know that my order would be delivered on Friday 22/12, if that was convenient: of course, the picture rails turned up today, Thursday, and I got an SMS to let me know that there had been a delivery. Which seems kind of pointless, but what would I know? Then came another email, to say that they had to get a flatbed truck for the 1000-page catalogue, so that will be delivered next Wednesday: it will probably turn up tomorrow. You get used to it. (Although I am not entirely sure what I shall do with the bloody 1000 page catalogue: weight-lifting? A doorstop, for summer? Perhaps weighting a ham when I cure one? Margo says it will be her friend.)

Whatever, Merry Christmas. Bah, humbug.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Mostly, Food ...

Once again the mighty organ deep in the bowels of the mairie farts into tremulous life: stunned sparrows drop from the speakers and Jerôme's voice is completely lost under the recorded noise of bugles, blown out their arses by a squad of jodphured twits with two bottles too many under their belts.

Still, a red-letter day in Moux, as the mayor's idiot nephew and his henchmen load up the municipal white van and careen merrily through the vines and fields in the plaine d'Alaric, flinging bewildered pheasants left and right from the tailgate as they go. For today it is the "lacher des faisans" for the benefit and pleasure of those "hunters" too elderly, too senile or too obese to go and actually hunt their own bloody prey. I have this mental image of some retarded bird standing in the middle of a circle of some fifty-odd red-nosed men with rifles, and the thought of what could happen were it to be wearing a suicide belt warms the cockles of my wizened grimy heart.

The suicide belt would probably be unnecessary, truth to tell, as the circle of hunters would be firing at one another ...

Seems only overnight that the platanes, the plane trees that you find in every French town worthy of the name, have gone from green to brown, and our very own St. Régis is shivering up on his pedestal as the brittle leaves scurry about the place with every gust of wind.

In Carcassonne, les inconditionels of Chez Félix sit out huddled in their greatcoats as they sip coffee at the terrace tables and smoke their weedy rollups but we don't care, for we are in our house, and warm. Not only because of the central heating, also because David, Yotam and Nigel turned up together in the letterbox the other day and so I have been inspired to cook and even - in the case of Ottolenghi's beetroot cake - bake. Which means that the oven has been working overtime, and my little kitchen is warm and cosy. And smells that way. Coriander and cumin and pumpkin and garlic in the couscous, beetroot and orange in the cake (and, incidentally, in the meat patties for the couscous), duck fat and pig products in the cassoulet from the other night ...

Slater has another beetroot cake recipe, involving chocolate and an unhealthy number of eggs: I shall doubtless get around to trying that, maybe when my new oven arrives?

For I took the plunge, and ordered a new 90cm wide stove with five gas hobs and three electric ovens, despite the fact that the manufacturer - in their quaint, totally incompetent English fashion - were completely unable to supply me with any more documentation than was available on RueDuCommerce: you know, those interesting little details such as the volume of each of the ovens? Shit like that, which is possibly boring to most people but which excites me.

OK, it's a model destined for the French market, but even so I was not expecting this as a reply: "Unfortunately I only have access to the information on UK models and therefore it would be best to contact a local retailer or search online for a user manual for the appliance" when I contacted customer disservice. (Incidentally, is it just me or does the phrase "reached out to" in lieu of the honest "contacted" drive other people to distraction too?) But frankly, I mean you actually make the damn things, and the best you can do is suggest that I "search online"? If England is indeed a nation of shopkeepers, they're the ones from "The League of Gentlemen". A local shop, for local people, who don't have to say what they want.

But I bought it anyway, despite not being able to kick the tires (one thing I dislike about online shopping for stuff like that, but there's no way I'm driving up to the Paris showroom to look at a stove) because it smiled at me.

There is one glaringly obvious problem with it (I have not yet dared tell Margo) which is that there is no warming drawer/storage space with it, all of that room being taken up by actual oven, so I shall have to find somewhere else to store all my roasting pans and baking dishes ... cross that bridge when we come to it, I reckon. Also, maybe she won't notice for a while. Godnose we've other things to occupy us. For now our newly refurbished living-room is (mostly) full of boxes of books and bric-à-brac that we've not - after four years, yet - got around to unpacking, so that we can go in and get all mediaeval in the dining room.

It will be lovely when it is done - and we're planning, perhaps optimistically, for Christmas - but as I've said, it is going to require quite a bit of demolition work on patches of the existing plaster: also, me learning how to plaster correctly. What the hell, I have all the required tools, what can possibly go wrong?

But never mind, the little guy with the Peruvian bonnet is back at the market, selling persimmons and, in hidden crates reserved for the more discerning clientèle, feijoas. It would be nice to have some anonymous benefactor just drop a 5kg bag of the things off at the front door from time to time but that's not going to happen, so I have to actually pay money to get my fix; but they are so good, and so worth it.

And once we get over the pleasure of just eating them like that, as they come, there are apple and feijoa crumbles, feijoa bretonne (there's another one from The Listener, on a torn-out, yellowing page of tatty newsprint which is towards the top of my precious Pile), and then there's a recipe for lemon and feijoa ice cream which I really ought to try ... better take advantage of them while I can, come Christmas they'll be gone.

I ordered my new stove on Saturday, and on Tuesday I got an email from the supplier to tell me that it had been shipped and should arrive within six to eight working days; I would get an email to say it was ready to be dropped off at the door and the driver would give me a call to check up on the exact time that was convenient to me.

"No problem", I thought, "it'll arrive sometime next week, have plenty of time to clean the old one before it goes off to a worthy cause, also to get the back entrance to the house ready so that we have room to get the new stove in ..."

Of course it came as a surprise, and an embuggerment, when the doorbell (which is actually working again, godsnose how or why but I guess they move in ineffable ways) rang and the dogs barked enthusiastically this moaning (Thursday) and there was a guy in a small lorry who said "party name of Bimler?"

"That would be me, yes."

"Waiting for a stove?"

"Yes", I said, "but wasn't there something about a bit of actual warning?"

"Well strictly speaking yerss, but it turned up in the depot so I thought I'd just bring it over on the off-chance ..."

On the bright side, he actually hauled it on the little transpal 50m up hill and down dale from the place to the back door, and was extremely cheerful about it: on the downside, it meant emptying the pantry extremely rapidly so we could bring the thing in before someone nicked it off the street, and then I spent the rest of the day swapping in the injectors for butane and rewiring a wall plug which had phase and neutral swapped around (good thing I checked, and only one wire - neutral, as it happens - broke off in my fingers and anyway it gave me the opportunity to actually wire up the earth) and generally installing the beast. Another upside: cleaning out the pantry we managed to get rid of about a cubic metre of old plastic ice-cream tubs and such that've been following us about like a bad smell for years. Which has to be good, right?

Whatever, it is now there in pride of place in my little kitchen, and we'll be either eating out or having microwaved dinners for the next few months because it is too new! sparkly! to actually be used. But I have checked, and all my baking trays and dishes will fit. So that's good, then.

I tell a lie. Down these parts we are "enjoying" a cold snap, and when it gets cold in the south of France it gets bitterly chilly; although the sun is shining brightly in that clear deep-blue sky the wind-chill from the tramontane takes it down to the double-digit negatives, which is not what we signed up for. (Note to self: complain angrily to someone about that.) Be that as it may, it is therefore the time of year when hearty dishes like cassoulet and such come into their own, so my stove got baptised with a largeish choucroute for eight. And although I do have form in that area, I was pleasantly surprised to find that once we'd all finished, there weren't really any leftovers to speak of. Makes a change: mind you, the weather does give one an appetite, and not for salads.

Come to that, in the vegetable drawer there are some brussels sprouts lurking, waiting to be parboiled and then go under the grill with lashings of blue cheese sauce with crispy bacon chunks; there is branched broccoli which should go rather nicely, stems and all, in a stir-fry with soy sauce, a bit of hoi sin and garlic and maybe some ginger, with a few sliced peppers; there are also some topinambours (the Jerusalem artichoke, to you) and I am damned if I know what I shall do with them, might involve parboiling and frying in lashings of butter (assuming I can still buy some), or maybe roasting. These are the problems with which I am confronted on a daily basis.

In other news, our neighbour Rory from the bottom of the place came over and very competently filled the massive holes my enthusiastic efforts had left in the walls of the dining room, so that rather than spending my day thigh-deep in plaster droppings I had time to bog up some of the more glaring cracks in the ceiling : this means that I shall spend tomorrow thigh-deep in plaster dust, as I sand everything back so that it's a rough approximation of flat. For a given set of values for "flat" which just happens to include "kind of wavy".

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Buildings And Stoves (More Songs) ...

So, as is my wont, I took Jara and Emma out for their evening piddle the other night: this is usually around 23:00 just to make sure they're ready for it. (Believe me, it's so much better not to have to clean up crap in the verandah first thing in the moaning.) It's about five or six km for the round trip by the time we've headed up the road that leads out and under the autoroute and made it up to the old four à chaux, so it's often midnight by the time we get back home.

And as usual, we came back past old Henri Bataille's mausoleum (actually not exclusively his, it belongs to the mostly deceased Huc family, of which he was a member), which would be relatively unimpressive were it not set in a park of cypress trees behind a high stone wall (into which, incidentally, are set - in letters of gold - some of Bataille's less banal verses, he must have been channeling Baudelaire at the time) with, plonked directly in front of it, a replica of Squelette by Ligier-Richier: because, for some reason, he wanted that. A décadent manqué, if you ask me ...

Anyways, in principle a mausoleum is as quiet as the grave, there's generally little to worry about if you've not been over-doing the absinthe, but as we went past late that night there was a shuffling and a clattering and a low, weary snuffling, as it might be some fell fangèd beast tearing unenthusiastically at the cere-cloths. Or possibly the Hell Horse - "old, lame, and weary unto death, and who shall look on it shall die". The dogs seemed anxious, and then as a cloud drifted over the moon there came a clomping, and a great sigh and a snorting, and then a large friendly donkey poked its head over the wall. Hoping, I think, for a sugar cube.

None of this, of course, prepared me for last night's episode. We'd given old Henri a wide berth (just saying, no point in taking unnecessary risks, what with the undead and all) and were coming back along l'avenue de l'Alaric, a road which is basically the southern boundary of Moux, and south of that there are fields, and vines, then the autoroute and beyond that the last ridges of our little mountain. We were not troubled by donkeys, nor by faceless abominations beyond the imagination of man, but as we got up to one of the sparse streetlamps I could not help but notice, four or five metres off to my right in the field, two wild boar cheerily munching away. The dogs were too surprised to say anything - probably just as well - and the sangliers looked up, spotted us, and trotted off into the darkness.

That's rather more excitement than I really need for an evening. Also, we were probably lucky that they decided to trot off, because you really do not want to mess with one of those things.

The living room here at The Shamblings™ is now painted in a fetching combination of sage green and pale cream, which means that in a couple of days the plumber can come back past and put up the huge radiator in there, as well as one in bedroom #2 on the first floor and one in my office, and then we can push the go-tit on the central heating. Which'll be rather nice, as the Cers is blowing and they're predicting highs of 8° during the day for the next week or so. (This was not, incidentally, in the brochures when we bought down here, and Margo in particular wishes to make her discontentment known.)

Two things not to do: start plastering, and look for replacement stoves on the innatübz. I say this from personal experience. The plastering I have already mentioned: you start, you just can't stop. I take some solace in the fact that when furniture is back occupying most of the room, the defects in the walls will be pretty much hidden. In the future dinning room I shall have to be more careful with my work, as thanks to decades of rising damp there are large chunks of plaster that are only hanging on to the walls by faith, or quantum inter-connectedness, or something. Also, when previous persons bogged up holes in the walls due to - as it might be - running power cables down there, or whatever, they did a job that even I would sneer at as being amateurish, and sanding back was obviously an optional extra which they weren't getting paid for and what the hell, who'll look?

I see that I am going to get extremely dusty, because I do look, and incidentally believe in sanding. Which reminds me that the Velcro plate on my elderly Bosch triangular sander finally gave up the ghost (just when I really needed it, of course) and so I tracked down a replacement and ordered it. (Not that easy to find, actually. The thing's twenty years old and has seen heavy use: the Bosch part would've cost as much as just buying a new sander. Luckily, Wolfcraft have a more reasonable pricing structure.) About a week later a huge heavy box arrived: instead of my long-awaited sanding plate it contained three nattily boxed sets of conduit saws, such as you use for drilling nice circular holes in walls for mounting power points and such.

Nice to have, may come in useful, three is still two too many and in any case it doesn't help my sanding problems - so I rang the supplier and said as much. "Ah yes", said the helpful woman on the hell-desk, "there seems to have been an error. We shall send you the right article straight away."

"And I may assume that your delivery-person will remove these three elegant cases of saws? Because I neither want nor need them, to be brutally honest with you."

"Oh no, keep them. We have already wasted enough money sending them to you by mistake, we do not need to pay even more to have them returned to us. Besides, we already got one." Ah well, I shall ask around friends and neighbours, see if I can't find someone to give them a good home.

But as for the oven - five burners (one a triple couronne, for woks and such) is non-negotiable, and I'm not going to pay fuck-all to buy a piece of crap (because I'm too poor to not buy quality), but do I want one huge oven, or would three smaller ones (one with a proper grill) make me happier? One gas and two electric would delight me, but there we're wandering off into hand-crafted stratospheric prices so I'll forget that. (I mean, the stoves are hand-crafted, lovingly assembled by maîtres-artisans from the finest materials, each signed with the craftsman's name. The prices too are hand-crafted, invented by the marketing people droids, and are designed to deter the hoi polloi from having nice things. Hey, I could buy a wood-fired one if I wanted, but then again I could buy a small Mercedes for the same price ...)

At this point I'd rather thought of inserting the minutes of the latest meeting of the Moux Dinning Club, but the napkin on which I jotted them down seems to have been used to mop up a massive wine spill at some point in the afternoon ...

Because we went off - about fourteen of us - to the chateau de Cavanac, a tad south-west of Carcasonne, for a birthday lunch the other Sunday. Lovely place, a good choice if you have visitors who want to try some très correcte traditional Frog cuisine: you'll not be startled by the originality of the menu but you'll not be disappointed by the quality either. Also, it's one of those rare beasts offering a fixed menu: apéro, four courses (with about six choices for each course), coffee and digestif plus all the wine you can drink for the outrageous price of 45€. The foie gras was excellent - only complaint there is one I have at every restaurant, which is "not enough thin, nicely grilled toast to go with it".

But then, although I am not French I have picked up a few French traits, and as anyone who's lived here for any length of time can tell you, the English may be a nation of shopkeepers but the French are a nation of râleurs. Show me a French-person with nothing to complain about, and I will show you a very miserable Frenchman.

Anyways, after a long quiet time I see that spam is back in my inbox, and those lovely girls Vera, Olga, Ekaterina and Inna (of the Tübz family, I assume) are reminding me just what a nice time we had a little while back. Individually, or possibly collectively - odd that I can't recall that, must be old age creeping up on me ...

I am a very conservative person and I hate chucking anything out, but I am having to seriously consider giving up my long relationship with Firefox. It was bad enough that the tabs are now hideous rectangular bricks - I guess the marketing consultants decided that "ugly" is what people want on-screen these days - but worse is that the latest version has bricked my more useful add-ons. Things like FireSSH, FireFTP, NoScript (without which I feel seriously and rather embarrassingly naked, not a pretty sight at my age): I am aware of the justification for this, I know that developers had plenty of warning if they wished to upgrade and yes, if I want to open an SSH session I can always use PuTTY but the thing is, I don't want to.

So I went back to version 52, and see I shall see how things go. Poorly, I suspect, and I shall have to change my working habits, which is always annoying.

And in other, unrelated news, the mayor's idiot nephew and the rest of the équipe municipale have been sent off to paint the railings and the park benches in the little square beside us. There are four of them: one to look after the paintpot, another to hold the brush, and two to move the benches back and forth.

Whatever, I'll leave you there. Those boxes of books are not going to shift out of the room by themselves.

Monday, November 6, 2017

High on a Hill ...

NOT The Shamblings™
As you may or may not have noticed - and if you had actually noticed, you could probably not give a rat's arse - there is a butter famine in these parts of the world. The more excited of the commentariat would have it that this is due to the evil machinations of the sinister Dr. Fu Manchu who has bought up the entire world butter supply; doubtless with the aim of using it to grease Chinese gymnasts so that they can excel come the next Olympics. More reasonable people have a slightly more plausible hypothesis but hey!, that's probably fake news.

Personally I too would not give a rat's arse, were it not for the fact that when I pootled around Carrefour today in search of another 10 kg of cholesterol to last us through the week the shelves were bare, apart from the margarine department which was plentifully stocked.

I know that some people do actually prefer margarine to butter, and I'm very grateful that they're safely locked away somewhere they can do no harm to themselves or others (and above all, not allowed access to any cooking utensils), but I will have problems with this. Olive oil is all very well but you can't spread it on a proper sandwich (for the sake of amicable relations, we'll agree not to talk about the pan bagnat here, because despite its undisputed merits it is not really a sandwich) and anyway I really, really, like butter for frying. Also, it's probably good for your complexion.

Be that as it may, we went away again last weekend, leaving Mad Karen's eldest son, Rafaelo, once again in charge of the dogs. For Rick and Mary were house/dog-sitting for a friend of theirs, who just happens to own a) a converted bergerie up in the mountains, just a shade north of Queribus, and b) a young and very enthusiastic sheepdog.

You tend not to think of the Corbières as being a mountainous region, but as you go south you get closer to the Pyrenées and you start to climb and go round twisty-turny hairpin bends to get up to the little cols (OK, at all of 600m altitude, but that's nothing to laugh at if you happen to be walking up it) and finally, when you get to the top of one such - assuming you take the time to pull over and admire the view - you have to admit that you were mistaken.

So Saturday moaning we headed down in Margo's little MiTo and hardly got lost at all, apart from right at the end when we started down the wrong dirt track (also, backing up the wrong track, smoke started coming out from under the bonnet and there was a strong smell of burnt rubber, which we decided was probably just a brake pad and as nothing nasty has happened since we shall continue to ignore it), and wound up in this valley, surrounded by mountains, at about 300m altitude, with this old house sitting there in a sort of prairie with a small river running through it, and a lake, and lots of trees: cue a full-throated rendition of "The Sound of Music", specifically the song about the lonely goatherd.

And then we unpacked, and waited for Angela and Martin who were also turning up along with their two dogs, and drank a bit - as one will - to while away the time; and when they'd emptied their car of enough gear for an assault on Everest, by common consent we went off and had lunch, and more wine just because.

All this to fortify ourselves, because the main object of the afternoon was in fact going for a walk in the mountains. "Only three hours", said Mary cheerfully, "and about 200m of denivelé".

I would not have thought it of her, and had someone suggested it to me I would have been shocked, but she lied - both by commission, and by omission. But whatever, we set off along this little track that led us through woods and meadows and sundry other of Nature's delights (personally I always have this nagging doubt that I am actively profaning Nature with my presence, which is one reason I usually try to avoid such activities) until we came up to a bit of scrubby pasture which was mostly thyme - about in the middle of that photo below.

Walked on top of this one
Where we found the GR 36, which we were not allowed to take at that time for Mary insisted we go "just a little further up" so we pushed on through the shrubbery and found ourselves at the edge of a precipice (you see that outcropping of rock to the right?), which was, it seems, the ideal spot for a little snack. It is true that the view was spectacular.

 Then we were allowed back to the GR 36 and followed it sort of easterly, for it traverses the rock face and heads - mostly - downwards, on mossy paths through bosky whatevers, with a suitable screening of trees to the right as you go down, hiding the grim reality of your imminent lapidary death should you slip.

Which is all very well until you get to the part where a large section of cliff face has actually - doubtless out of sheer boredom or possibly plain old malice aforethought - fallen off, leaving something that I can only describe as an inverted pimple on the rock wall: but bits of the mountain decided to stay where they were, so the path brings you to a natural rock bridge over the goufre, with a pit to your left and a sheer drop to your right. OK, it was at least two metres wide, and the odds of death by being impaled on a larch whilst plummeting from 50m up are, statistically, pretty close to zero, but still ...

After that, clambering over this treacherous sort of ball joint sticking out of the rock (where the view down was merely vertiginous) to get back to the path was pretty much a doddle, and from thence it was but a stroll through an idyllic river valley to get back to the car. The next time Mary invites us on a walk, I shall make sure to ask for more details.

But we all survived, and ate boeuf bourguignon and fruitcake snug inside as the tramontane decided to blow, and Martin had - as is his wont - brought some excellent bottles, and as icing on the cake I had no need to get up the next morning to take the hairy retards out. Of course, it would have been the weekend that Europe changed back to winter time so I didn't really feel as though I'd taken advantage of that, but you can't have everything.

TL;DR version: it was a lovely weekend with good friends in an old house that had, to all appearances, been outfitted with the contents of all the antiquaires and braderies within a 50km radius: lovely for a holiday away from it all (I think even internet was over satellite, and gravity was optional) but no way we could ever have lived there. Not for any length of time.

We got back to find that, as per instructions, Rafaelo had not only occupied himself with the dogs during our absence, he had painted the ceiling and the rafters in the living room. I rather suspect that it was the first time he'd ever wielded a paintbrush in anger, for there are certain lacunae, but hey! it saved a lot of bother. Also, the ceiling is actually and certifiably white, possibly for the first time in I don't know, maybe fifty years?

Rather stupidly I decided to plaster up some of the more egregious holes and dings in the wall, which means that there is a fine dusting of plaster all through the place (for I am not competent enough to do a job that requires little to no sanding) - also, you can't stop yourself. You say to yourself "Right, that's the very last bit done and dried, just sand it off and we're good to go" and it's at that very moment, when your nose is up against the wall, that you spot another bit that really needs doing, and wonder how in hell you missed it the first time round. It is very annoying.

But never mind, it's done (actually, I gave up in despair) and we've chosen a colour with which we can both live, so now it's just a question of doing the actual painting. After which I can put up all the light fittings, we can shift all the furniture (and then some) back in, and we will have the luxury of five minute's quiet contemplation of the work that remains to be done in the future dinning room. Where there's half a wall that sorely needs replastering (rising damp): I think I shall call in a professional for that.

Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Unashamedly Fat ...

So here we are, as Autumn comes in and I'm another year closer to getting my OAP card and joining the masses of totterers and the feeble-minded shuffling witlessly about the aisles at Carrefour, looking for the adult incontinence pads.

Apart from that it's a wonderful season: crisp and bright in the moaning, when the dogs and I go out for our respective bowel motions, and then in the afternoon when the low sun lights up the old stonework and a few rays filter through the leaves, and the sky is vast and the colour of lapis lazuli, it is almost too beautiful for words. Luckily, we've got used to it, and are no longer surprised.

Whatever, I celebrated with a two-hour walk out on the plaine de l'Alaric - without the dogs, for once, as I wished to take the camera and have at least a sporting chance of getting a few photos - and then when I got back, as it's the foire au gras around these parts I found myself with a foie gras de canard which is even now bathing in milk until I season it and dose it with cognac before wrapping it in a tea-towel and poaching for an honest-to-god foie gras au torchon, also four duck legs which are macerating in gin, salt and allspice before reaching apotheosis as confit de canard.

But not tonight - it being Monday now - as chez Réné, our itinerant drinking session, had organised lunch at le Gallois, a little gîte/restaurant at Capendu, all of 4km from here. We turned up, all seventeen of us, around midday, and the last of us rolled out some time around 16h. It's a bit too soon to start on the obituary: announcements of the death of the good long French lunch are somewhat premature.

But as you can probably guess, I am not particularly hungry just at the moment, and the concept of confit de canard with potatoes fried in duck fat on the side is not as enticing as it would be under other circumstances, so I rather suspect it'll be an omelette tonight.

I am planning on cooking that duck liver au torchon, which in fact (according to the excellent Mssrs Ruhlman and Polcyn, of Charcuterie fame) means not really cooking at all, given that it just involves poaching the thing, wrapped tightly in a tea-towel (hence the name) in barely simmering water for all of 90 seconds. As he says, you're basically just softening the fat (and a hypertrophied duck liver is, mostly, fat) so you can make it into a nice shape: also, it'll have been salted and soaked in alcohol and most bacteria do not really thrive in fat (you are starting to see the common point here?) so that's fine. Just keep it in the fridge, and eat within a week.

Ten Twelve tiny toes ...
It will make a change from my usual terrine, cooked in a bain-marie - which is always a bit of a hiss-and-mit affair because the temperature regulation on my oven is neither precise, nor repetitive, nor does the scale actually go down to 140° which is what I really want: this is yet another incentive for me to go off and buy a new oven. Let's face it, the one I have has given ten years at least of good and faithful service, but I choose not to repeat what the guy said about the grill on it when he came around a year or so back to change a gas tap on one of the burners (from memory, "public menace" and "incendiary" were some of the words he uttered), and anyway I am a complete slut when it comes to cooking gear.

I have my eyes on a very nice replacement, same five gas burners including the ridiculous 4 KW one for the wok, and the same huge oven only electric rather than gas (which is actually better for patisserie and stuff like that): I have but to convince myself that I really want it.

That, and I shall have to get used to having something in my kitchen with the brand name SMEG. Which always sounds like one of those gross runny skin diseases to me.

That can wait. For a bit, anyway. Before that I have to go buy a couple of old-school dumb phones, of the kind with a cord that you just plug into a wall socket, in order that I may, in fact, just plug them into some of the phone jacks around here in The Shamblings™. This is because, in common with many, we have two phone numbers: good old POTS, and the VoIP number that comes with the Livebox that provides us with essential things like Internet and kitty porn. In principle one plugs one's Livebox into a phone jack and the phone into the Livebox, and whether someone calls on the POTS number or on the new-fangled VoIP number the phone will ring.

Sadly, this turns out not to be the case - at least, not reliably.

For the past week it was a wonderment to us that we had had no phone calls, and I tried ringing us, and lo! there was a great silence in the Force, for the phone did not ring. So I called the Orange support-drones (give them their due, they are actually available 24/24, 7/7 like it says on the tin) and I was led through the process of disabling the ring on POTS calls, saving that, then re-enabling it and saving that. Upon which, it all started working again.

"Admit it", I said to the anonymous "technician", "this is not optimal. True, I now know that the software in your frikkin Livebox is brain-dead and has hissy-fits, and I know what to do about it, but I ask you how I can know when it has had a hissy-fit, given that we do not know that we have missed a possibly life-or-death phone call?"

"Ah", it mumbled back at me. "Sir has two options. You may do this every evening, just in case. Or, my personal preference, buy a really cheap phone and plug it into the phone jack. Like that, if your really cheap phone rings but not the others, you will know that your Livebox has deconned, and you may repeat what I have taught you."

I put it to him that this too, although admittedly a solution, was one which required me paying about ten baguettes-worth of my own money to fix a problem which was, in theory, their responsibility, and was also unaesthetic in the extreme; but I could tell he'd lost interest. So we exchanged civilities, hung up, and I resolved to do as he had suggested whilst waiting for Orange to stick out a patch: which'll probably bugger something else, but that would be par for the course.

Hell, with the brand-new Livebox they recently sent me (and which I foolishly installed, believing their blandishments when they said it was necessary to take full advantage of the refurbished network that will be coming our way Real Soon Now), I can't even change the interface language, nor can I pick my preferred DNS provider ... I suppose this is progress, of a sort. Should be inured to that sort of thing by now.

Anyway, like I said earlier it is now autumn and the dogs' walks are necessarily somewhat curtailed during the day, for that means it is hunting season. And around these parts lots of people go hunting. We prefer not to go up into the pinède, for there the hunter's vision - already blurred by heroic quantities of cheap plonk - will be even further obscured by the pine forests; and down amongst the vines where some go for rabbits it is no better. I suppose I should take some comfort from the fact that hunters usually kill other hunters rather than innocent passers-by (hunters tend to wear hi-vis vests along with their ridiculous little deer-stalker hats, which makes for a better target), but I would prefer not to become one of the exceptions to this general rule.

On the bright side, there are huge cèpes at the market, and bright yellow/orange girolles (or chanterelles, if you prefer) at a price which, on the "eye-watering" scale, is at least closer to "a kick in the kneecap" than "a knee in the balls". Also, huge and deformed pumpkins, but the less said about them the better.

Also, we've just arrived back from a weekend in Spain with José and Guillain. I don't think I've eaten - and drunk - so much in the space of 36 hours for quite some time. We left home at some ungodly hour on Saturday to get down to Empuriabrava in time for the market which was the ostensible reason for going, and had an apéro. Then we ambled up and down the market, headed back to the bar, and had another apéro. Then as it was getting on for 14:00 and thus lunch-time, we found a restaurant, had an apéro and a full lunch, with wine.

(Incidentally, the Spanish will have no truck with your wimpy Frog 13cl glass. The white wine you take as apéro comes in a copa, which holds rather more.) Then we went off to another village, where José won a couple of hundred at the casino, then had an apéro before going off to another village for yet another apéro: then up into the foothills above the coast for an apéro at the local bar des chasseurs. Back to the hotel they'd booked for the night, and an apéro before dinner, which we were forced to wash down with wine.

There was a disco for the over-fifties, so we hung around there for a bit and José insisted on a little digestif, which in my case turned out to be about 4 inches of whisky in a highball glass: as a reward for being so good we were then allowed to go to bed. And after a final apéro with breakfast this moaning (you ever tried chocolate-filled churros?) we stopped off briefly at La Jonquera to pick up a few essential and otherwise unobtainable supplies - such as dry sherry, dry Martini and queso manchego - before heading home to find that Rafaelo had neither burnt the house down nor been slobbered to death by the dogs in our absence. Which has to be good news, I guess.