Sunday, 10 April 2016

230. The internet at the speed of heat

27th May. Here's an intriguing question that I found at the link below.. Are the English Basque? 

Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer has presented some rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes: To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question.

First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons).

Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic.

And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea. Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.

That means that about 95 out of 100 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

More here.

22nd May. For some reason, I started thinking about La Place des Vosges in Paris. It's one of our favourite places there and it's somewhere we never tire of visiting.

If you don't know it, it's well worth noting it down on your "to do" list for the next time you visit the City of Light. (this is the best video I could find of it.. I know it's not brilliant)

19th May. We did a quick trip to Spain this morning for some shopping. Unfortunately our visit to the ventas at Dancharia coincided with that of a few coach loads of mainly French pensioners.. quite a few of whom seemed to be confused by the whole thing. Aisles were blocked as old dears in charge of shopping trolleys managed to get them tangled up (where's a chain saw when you need one?!) - while others abandoned their shopping trolleys at random (in the manner of cars parked in Naples) while they had a senior moment wondering which 2 litre bottle of pastis, gallon of white port or 10 litre wine box they were going to go for.. (usual answer: all three!). When their shopping was complete, they'd emerge blinking in the sunlight and then the new game would start: pushing an overloaded trolley through the car park traffic without looking left or right! Frightening to consider that many of them were our age! Much to look forward to!☺      

16th May. We've been working hard in the garden lately and I think it's now looking close to the finished product (if you can ever say that about a garden). Since we cut down a tree that pigeons used, we've had no further holes pecked in the lawn. At one stage it started to look like a practice putting green! It's taken us 8 years to get to where we are now.. Choosing the right grass seed was by trial and error and so far, there are no signs of dry patches on the lawn. At this time of the year, the growing conditions are just about perfect with warm temps and regular light showers. Later in the year, the sun's heat becomes more intense and rainfall, when it comes, can be, and often is, torrential!

15th May. Time for a Caption Competition.. Here's today's:
Post your entry via the "Comments" below this post.

12th May. I was just re-reading the opening chapter of Peter Mayle's Bon Appétit! when it struck me that his introduction to French cooking was rather similar to my own. Read the first chapter here and see if any of it resonates with youI found myself nodding at his views of French food as he described his first encounter with it in a Parisian restaurant at the age of 19, after growing up in the gastronomic wasteland that was England in the post-war years.

I'd never really enjoyed meat as a boy as it was generally cooked to death* at home - rendering it necessary to chew it interminably. I honestly think my father would have been happier if the kitchen cooker had been replaced by a blowtorch! Meat was never allowed to have any hint of pinkness, or heaven forbid - blood! In fairness, I suspect that my dear mother's cooking was no different to thousands of other mothers back then. I always thought then - and still think now - that she was a great cook though. She did the best she could with what was available. I thought my dislike of meat was my problem. Peter Mayle's account reminded me of the first time I travelled abroad in the early sixties. It was to Switzerland and, like him, I had been forcibly vaccinated with French at school (but if I'm being honest, I don't think it 'took').

* It used to be said that meat in England was killed twice.. once in the abattoir and then murdered in the kitchen. 

As an 18 year old, I remember finding myself at a loose end in Geneva around lunchtime one day. As I strolled by lakeside restaurants, the magical smells that wafted out from them caused my previously unemployed taste buds to tingle. I stopped at a suitable restaurant with a terrace and ordered a steak-frites.. which was a curious choice, given my lifelong aversion (thus far) to meat. Thinking about it, I probably ordered it because I was fairly confident of being able to pronounce it! When it came, I cut into the steak and rosy juices gushed forth. At home, this would have been the signal for an emergency call to the nearest vet or, at the very least, returned to the kitchen pronto for further blow-torching.. Instead, I bit into it and voila! An epiphany moment.. So it was that I could finally say so that's what meat tastes like!! Then there were the perfect frites.. 
There's a different attitude to food in the UK.. I remember a former colleague who often asked me on a Monday morning what Madame had made over the weekend. Once, when my reply showed too much enthusiasm for whatever it was we'd had, she said, "But Xxxxxx, it's only food..". I found that such a depressing attitude.

There's nowhere in the world (that I've been to) where the preparation and enjoyment of food is treated with the same love, passion and veneration as here in France. At the very highest level, French restaurants are temples to gastronomy and the pleasures of the table are a serious business. It is taken for granted that the diner has an understanding of what is expected of him and that he will behave accordingly.
Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon, Paris, has long been on my list of places to visit.. One of these days! (Site here) (Menu here
Le Train Bleu

For more images of food in France, click on this link and scroll down.

A couple of days ago we met some English friends who were on a walking holiday in the Pyrenees. We'd arranged to see them at lunchtime at Bentas de Donamaria (below), a delightfully rustic restaurant in the beautiful Baztan valley in Spain.

The food was Michelin quality.. another place to remember!

7th May. The swallows are back.. darting and twittering around the roofs. This is normally my cue to drag the plancha* out of the garage up to the terrace where it will spend the next six months.
* Not sure what a plancha is? So much better than a charcoal or gas barbeque.. No more cries of "Scrape the black bits off, it's OK underneath..". Look here. Trying cooking the above meal on a barbeque.. Impossible! I can't understand why they haven't taken off in the UK.. If I was looking for a business opportunity, I'd look no further.

6th May. I think we've taken a giant leap into summer here from a standing start. Yesterday after lunch, I was up a ladder in the garden painting a wall white and the temperature was up in the high twenties.. It may even have been above 30°. Mad dogs and Englishmen etc.. I had to put my paintbrush down every so often and drink something cold. Fortunately, I found a couple of bottles of San Miguel  in the fridge in the garage.. Hard work this painting!

My shorts have also had their first airing this year.. after warning the neighbours in advance! Plus, we ate outside for the first time on our terrace. This is how it will be for the next six months.. 

We were in the Baztan valley (right) the other day. It's one of those places that miraculously seems to have avoided mass tourism - or indeed any form of tourism. It's just across the border into Spain (map here) and the scenery is magnificent.. with breathtaking vistas across broad valleys, soaring hillsides, distant peaks, white painted farmhouses dotting the landscape, vultures circling (yes, vultures) and all resplendent in new spring green. Don't take my word for it - look here:

The photos above are all of the Baztan valley. 

I'd been to Elizondo in the Baztan valley with some hill-walking friends a few days previously and I'd spotted an intriguing Art Deco wine cooler in an antigüedades shop.. It's very similar to the one shown here except it only cools one bottle at a time (I can live with that). In the example at left, ice is added via the central lid. In the summer heat on our terrace, a bottle of wine quickly loses its freshness so this new toy will be very welcome. It's difficult to be sure what the metal is (it isn't silver that's for sure) - I'm thinking from my brief examination of it that it may be nickel plate - or similar. In any event, it's the ideal gift for someone like yours truly who never has a clue what he wants for his birthday.. Madame and I went back there a day or two later to pick it up. Regrettably, I'm told that it has to stay hidden away in quarantine until the day itself.

1st May. We ventured deep into la France profonde today.. We'd been invited to lunch by some French friends who'd bought an mid-18th century farmhouse down a single track country lane near Cauneille (about an hour or so inland from here). They've been restoring it for two years and the results were impressive to say the least. They'd opened up the downstairs to form a wonderfully spacious living room, complete with the original open fireplace. There were some heavy beams but they'd painted those pale grey so they weren't as oppressive as they might otherwise have been. The lady of the house had been an interior designer and it showed.. There were many instances of her infallible eye for combining old objects with new. There were some beautiful old pieces of antique French country furniture that she'd brought from her family home. Sitting down at her dining table, it felt to me as if we were in a living tableau of a homage to country living in France.. A really memorable lunch and afternoon. 

12th April. I should also add that we can now receive a vast number of programmes on our TV - but there aren't enough hours in the day to step through them all. Previously, we'd had great difficulty in accessing Sky News and BBC World - the picture would pixillate as though under the influence of mind-bending drugs as the ADSL connection froze, momentarily unblocked & froze again to a chorus of electronic chirrups and squawks.. thus rendering it useless. Now that both are available in HD quality, I can see that we haven't missed much in the preceding 8-9 years! They're both still unwatchable - but for different reasons!

10th April. I had one of those "How did that happen" moments the other day.. when I realised with a jolt that next year, in September 2017, we'll have been here for ten years.. Yes, ten years..! Cue a stream of questions along the following lines: D'you miss England? What do you miss most? Ready to go back? etc etc.. The funny thing is I feel completely at home here and I'm not pining for England at all. In fact, whenever we're in the car driving north up the autoroute towards Bordeaux, I can guarantee that inside the first ½ hour, one of us will say: "Why are we leaving home? Let's go back..". Once we get past Dax, I feel that we're in the north.. This really is a blessèd corner of France. I don't feel the need to go on holiday either as everything I like is right here. We do have the odd short break away - true - but I don't feel deprived in any way by not having a major 2-3 week holiday away to some far away long haul destination.

4th April. We've just had our internet connection upgraded from copper wire to fibre optic and the difference in speed is staggering. We can now watch TV and films on my PC in real time without the picture jerking and freezing momentarily. This is more like it.. Prior to this, we'd only been achieving download speeds in the region of 2Mbps via our ADSL broadband connection - so the new figure (right) is more than a 100-fold improvement.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

229. Up in the clouds

28th March. I came across this image (as you do) by happenstance.. I like to think of it as natural justice in action..

"Right, gentlemen, which one of you was clapping?"
I have little sympathy (as in absolutely zero) with anyone finding themselves in this position!

This afternoon we went to Salies-de-Béarn to see Art en Vrac - an art exhibition that was taking place in many different locations across the village.

Before talking about the art, it should be said that the village is undeniably picturesque and well worth a visit.. Totally different style of building compared to what we see in the Pays Basque.

To me, there was one stand-out artist -  NabARus (it's how she spells her name) - whose work was not only head and shoulders above any other work we saw today but also above anything we've seen for a very long time. The range of her work reflected an original eye, an astonishingly creative mind and a command of colour and technique. More here and here.

This (below) was a large portrait that caught my eye.. I found myself returning to it again and again.. Reduced to this size, it loses much impact but full size is a different story.

This is a painting I would have liked to own.

27th March. Europe's gypsies have an annual pilgrimage (in May) to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer in the Camargue in southern France to pay homage to their Saint - the Black Sara.. This video features that great gypsy guitarist Dorado Schmitt as he and his friends provide the musical accompaniment (I think I've posted this here before - but I make no apologies for doing so again):

Here's Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán with their interpretation of an old 60s hit:
This was Easter morning at the beach at Anglet.. By the way, these aren't Antony Gormley figures made of cast iron on the beach - they're the real thing!

26th March. I believe "Across the Street and into the Grill" won 1st prize in a competition to write the best Hemingway parody. See what you think..! Some more: "Big Too-Hardened Liver".. "Across the suburbs and into the express lane"..

20th March. When I see these images of the old tramway that ran the 6 km from Bayonne to Biarritz via Anglet, it's hard to imagine that these structures actually existed. There are very few traces of them left today.
Here's a video about Biarritz I've been meaning to put here for a while..
16th March. This is a report, featuring the Pays Basque, taken from a series called "100 Must See Places" on France 5 - it starts at 1:13.

15th March. I spent Sunday with a mixed group of walkers from both sides of the frontier in the Baztan valley* retracing a route used by evading Allied airmen during WWII as they made their way across the Pyrenees into Francoist Spain for onward passage to Gibraltar and then England. 
* we were fortunate to have Georgina Howard with us. In addition to running walking holidays in the area, she's a polyglot - speaking English, French, Spanish and Basque!  
Several of the Spanish walkers had family ties with the Comet Line's wartime guides and it was clear that there was much common ground between us. Basque speakers from both parties were soon swapping notes. 

I've walked other routes like this several times before but this was one of the hardest I've experienced. It wasn't helped by the rain-soaked ground that caught some of us out (not me) with slips into water-filled boggy areas - I needed a soggy foot like the proverbial hole in the head. 

We dropped our cars at Amaiur-Maya then took 2 minibuses to the vicinity of the former safe house at Jauriko borda from where we'd start the walk proper. Jauriko borda was a 'safe' farm that lay just inside Spain and it had been used many times by airmen. They'd rest up here after their gruelling night hike that had threaded them through the numerous border patrols, guided by mountain guides in the service of the Comet Line. 

After an hour or two, we came upon a clear area on a hilltop to find a Spanish 4x4 there with a small team preparing an alfresco Spanish-style breakfast for us.. spicy sausages, ham and fresh bread, with cider and/or red wine! (breaking the habits of a lifetime, I stuck to water) This was followed by brioche and coffee.. This surprise meal really hit the spot and gave us the time to talk more with our Spanish Basque hosts.    

Refreshed and replete, we set off again and, for some of us (viz your correspondent), the pain kicked in.. However, loins were girded, teeth were gritted and aches and pains ignored as we traversed some of the most stunning scenery in this part of the world. Wild cattle and horses were in evidence and mountain oak clung on to the hills as we climbed higher and higher until we reached the snow line. Soon it was time to descend again which unfortunately turned out to be just as painful as climbing.. 

This farm Kanttoreneko Borda, that now appears derelict, was used as a 'safe' hiding place in Spain by Comet: 
Finally, after 13km, we arrived back at Amaiur-Maya, the picture postcard Basque village where we'd left our cars 6 hours previously. After changing our mud-splattered walking shoes, we entered a restored mill where the promise of a cold beer awaited us. We were served thin corn flour pancakes filled with cheese and bacon.. and, later, others with dark chocolate.
The whole was a totally beguiling experience and I'll be returning there with Madame before too long.  

I managed to catch the second half of the Scotland - France 6 Nations rugby (well done Scotland!) and then after a bowl of soup, I hit the hay at 8pm.. Instant oblivion.. zzzzz-zzz-zzz-zzzzzzz

Thursday, 3 March 2016

228. The rider who came in from the cold

3rd March. Apologies in advance for this post which is entirely free of any references to the Pays Basque (apart from this). Walter Kaaden, claimed by some to be the father of the modern two stroke engine, died twenty years ago today. I suspect though that his name won't ring as many bells as perhaps it should.

The story of his life reads like a screenplay for a spy film - except that the truth was stranger than fiction. In brief, he'd worked at the Nazi rocket development centre at Peenemunde during WWII and in the early fifties he managed to find a job as head of the racing department at what became MZ motorcycles in the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany). After Germany's defeat in 1945, the factory at Zschopau had been systematically stripped by the Soviets and the machine tools and everything else that moved, including the windows, were shipped back to the USSR. A more inauspicious start you couldn't ask for.

Roadgoing two stroke motorcycles were usually simple, cheap-to-manufacture and run and were predominantly used as ride-to-work machines. Many motorcyclists (of a certain age) around the world would have cut their teeth on BSA Bantams in Europe or on Harley Davidson Hummers in the US without realising that they were straight copies of the ubiquitous DKW RT125 that was mass-produced for the German military. Post-war, it was widely copied and re-manufactured by the Allies as war reparations.

Walter Kaaden was fascinated by the 2 stroke engine as it had the potential, if developed, to achieve prodigiously high power outputs - as it fired once every revolution - compared to once every 2 revolutions for a 4 stroke engine. Up until then, the efficiency of a normally aspirated 2 stroke engine was low compared to that of a 4 stroke. All this was about to change.

Kaaden had extremely limited resources and he had to work on the proverbial shoestring. His work at Peenemunde had exposed him to the science of pressure waves that were used so effectively in the pulse jet engine of the V-1. Post-war, he painstakingly investigated exhaust expansion chambers to utilise the reverse pressure wave in order to improve the breathing of the 2 stroke engine. At most rpm settings, the position of the reverse pressure wave didn't match the position of the piston. However, at certain critical rpm settings the pressure wave reflected back from the expansion chamber met the excess charge emerging from the exhaust port and returned it to the cylinder under pressure thus ensuring that it was burnt. Outside the optimum rev range, the performance of the engine would have been unremarkable. However, once the engine hit that crucial and narrow rev band, the power would suddenly chime in and the rider had better hang on tight. The more power that Kaaden extracted from these engines, the narrower the optimum rpm band became (in some cases it was only a band of 400rpm). Accordingly, the number of gears available to the rider grew to 6, 9 and finally 14 speeds in the attempt to keep the engine operating within that critical rpm range.

A standard measure of efficiency of an internal combustion engine was, and still is, a power output of 100bhp per litre. Within just a few short years Walter Kaaden (right) had raised that figure for the MZ 2 stroke engine to over 200bhp per litre with the aid of carefully designed expansion chambers, a rotary disc inlet valve and a booster port. He managed to squeeze out 25bhp from a 125cc machine.. thus being the first motorcycle to get into the 200bhp per litre bracket. It was a water-cooled 125cc, with an 8 speed box and a 131mph top speed. All this in 1965!

A race-bred 2 stroke engine will never win any prizes for its sound.. Listen to an early MZ 125 race bike.. and then compare it to Agostini's MV in the Isle of Man.. especially when it fades into the distance..

Unfortunately for Walter Kaaden, his star rider, Ernst Degner (left), defected to the west in 1961 to hand over MZ's hard-won secrets to the Suzuki motorcycle company. Suzuki had been struggling - and failing - to get to grips with 2 stroke technology until Ernst Degner came along (whose palm had been greased with the equivalent of £10,000). At the time, MZ were within touching distance of a first World title but Degner's defection put paid to that as Honda took the title.

Here's Kaaden with the MZ team, probably taken in 1961, from l to r: Kaaden, Mike Hailwood, Alan Shepherd, Ernst Degner, unknown. Much more of this intriguing story here and here (scroll down to Post 37).

Why my interest in this story? Well firstly, the Kaaden story is one of a man's obsession to prove a principle, made more compelling by the fact he achieved great things without the help of a research department backed by millions of the manufacturer's money. I think there's a parallel to be drawn with Frank Whittle, one of the early pioneers of the jet engine.

Secondly, I've owned some interesting 2 stroke motorcycles in the past. When I was 18, I had a 1948 Scott Squirrel - a 600cc watercooled 2 stroke twin with total loss lubrication. I reluctantly sold it after it seized on me once too often. Here's a model from the late twenties - my 1948 model differed from it only in detail:

Much later in life, I read that the Scott concept had been resurrected and updated by George Silk. He redesigned the engine while keeping the basic concept (watercooled 2 stroke twin) - but he fitted an oil pump (similar to the Yamaha autolube system) that, in theory at least, should have eradicated seizures. I managed to find a Silk 700S (more here) and buy it. It was an astonishingly light machine with race-bred handling that weighed in at only 305lbs (138kg) - less than a Honda 250 but with a 650cc engine. The 2 stroke principle is attractive: very few moving parts compared to a 4 stroke, a power stroke with every revolution of the crankshaft and finally, lightness.

The late Colin Chapman, the ever-inventive Lotus race-car designer had two maxims that best expressed his philosophy:

"Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere" and
"Simplify, then add lightness..".

Apologies for including this post but it's a fascinating story (to me!). And now back to the Pays Basque!

Friday, 5 February 2016

227. End of an era

21st February. You've not come here to read about Brexit have you? Good - that's just as well because I won't mention it again. We all have our views on the subject and if anyone is really interested in it, there's plenty of column inches out there in the print media - plus countless talking heads on TV and radio.. 

20th February. I inherited Madame's old phone recently and I finally remembered to take it with me this morning when I took the dog down to the beach at Anglet.. There were very few people about. Looking at the picture, I can see I'm going to have to work on my technique, ie, keeping it level! That's Spain in the distance and the outcrop to the left of centre is known as the "Trois Couronnes" (the Three Crowns). The mountain scenery there is magnificent.
Best in full screen!
Here's one of a sunny Biarritz taken an hour ago.. Again, click on it to see it best:

19th February. 

I read somewhere once that the overwhelming majority of visitors (something like 95% of them) to the Pays Basque in summer don't venture further inland than 5km from the coast. It's true that in summer, whenever I've been up on the hills and mountains, that you could be excused for thinking that it was not the prime tourist season as you seldom see a soul. Blissful solitude.. However, I would recommend to all visitors here that they take at least one day out of their holiday on the beautiful Côte Basque to visit the interior, and especially to climb the hills.. It's incredibly rewarding.. and the views of the Pyrenees marching away to the south east in their blue serried ranks will stay with you forever.

The following clip shows a gentle introduction to the pleasures of hill-walking here:

Spectacular aerial views of the mountains on the "other side" (Spanish Basque country) - plus Mark Knopfler's "Going Home".. 
7th February. After the first weekend of the "6 Nations", some dreams are already lying in tatters. Firstly, Italy, Scotland, Wales and Ireland can't now win the Grand Slam.. and secondly, none of the last three can win the Triple Crown either. And judging by their rambunctious performance against the lack-lustre French XV, my money's on Italy to cause an upset or two. Stars to watch over the next few weeks? For Italy, the evergreeen Sergio Parisse and the Italian winger Sarto. For France, it can only be the former 7s player Virimi Vakatawa - who made a hugely impressive debut.

Jack Clifford came on for England with about 10 minutes left on the clock. I hope we see more of him as the tournament unfolds. He's a future England captain if ever I saw one. As for Scotland, Greig Laidlaw would grace any team. Hope he has a good tournament.

Pleased to see that they played the Black Bear and Scotland the Brave at Murrayfield yesterday.. If only they'd kick that maudling dirge Flower of Scotland into the long grass.

The Ireland - Wales match was a hard-fought encounter with no obvious man of the match..

5th February. I've finally had to come to the conclusion that my rowing days are over.. This has been forced on me by circumstances, aka my creaky knees. Once I'm in the boat, no problem.. but the killer for me is that, after a sortie, I'm unable to get out of the boat without assistance.. and I don't want to be the lame duck in the crew. I've rowed for around 55 years with one or two breaks and I know I'm going to miss everything about being out on the water early in the morning with a good crew when all is working as it should. The whirring sound of 8 seats sliding to and fro in unison, the blades being squared and feathered together, the surge of power when the cox calls for it, the way the boat sings when it's running well, the total concentration on making the current stroke better than the last one, being "in the zone" when it all comes together.. all these things I'll miss. I know it. But - there we are.. I've enjoyed the sport more than I can explain. I had been hoping that I'd be able to row for a few more years yet.. but sadly it's not to be.

Sylvie et Philippe
2nd February. Just back from a very tasty (and very reasonably priced) lunch at the Café du Musée, Bayonne. It's situated at the confluence of the Adour and the Nive and it's one of those places that you hear about from friends. We've been there three or four times now - and the menu has been different each time. No walk-ins though.. Must reserve a table by phone (05 59 59 16 39). It's run by Sylvie (front of house) and Philippe (galley slave). Friendly & welcoming, it appears on a list of good restaurants in Bayonne. Highly recommended. 

While we're talking about restaurants, I must mention Les 3 Soeurs (Ahizpak in Basque) at Bidart. If you do make a visit, the Crêpe soufflée à l’orange (below) is a 'must'.. (more pictures here
Here's a short list of good addresses at Biarritz. The only one I can vouch for is the first - Miremont - the fabled pâtisserie in the centre of town. You owe it to yourself to try at least one of their cakes.. or ices.