Wednesday, 2 August 2017

246. Deep in deepest France

22nd August. A loong time ago I lived on a Greek island and in the late afternoons/early evenings I used to work in a drinks store owned by a Greek guy. When trade was slack, we'd close up and drive out to a shack where we'd make and then bottle ouzo. Later in the evening, we'd go to an open air bar out on a headland where inevitably - as night follows day - someone would start dancing the sirtaki.. It's surprisingly hard to learn the sequence of steps - after all, there are only so many things you can do with two arms, two legs, two knees and two feet. Or so you'd think! This little clip takes me back.. I was never this good:
   
I've just discovered that there was a Festival Biarritz Années Folles (Biarritz in the Roaring Twenties Festival) in June 2017. A few wannabe 'Boy' Capels on show here.. Plus I would have needed to brush up my dancing skills (such as they are) if we'd gone.. One of the problems with these events is that it can be guaranteed that the MC will pick up a microphone and insist on talking and talking ad infinitum. (surgical intervention being required). I have a notoriously short attention span for many of the activities portrayed here (apart from 21:36!). I think I would have glazed over before too long.. and been caught sneaking a peek at my watch!

19th August. Yesterday it was the turn of Barcelona to experience the horror of a terror attack. It seems that they're occurring with increased frequency these days. I believe our interests would be best served by not revealing any details at all about the measures that are being taken to nullify these attacks.

18th August. I omitted to mention the passing of Glen Campbell, who achieved instant global fame with his enigmatic song - "Wichita Lineman". On the face of it, it's pretty much a 'nothing' easy listening song but then the mental images accumulate - a nostalgic lineman up a telegraph pole out on the lonely prairie, with the wind in the wires, missing his girl - and combine with what sounds like morse code and voila.. it all comes together. I heard this song the other day for the first time in years and it has stood the test of time very well. Have a listen:
Another unforgettable retail experience to chalk up.. It was decided by Higher Authority that the toilet seat in the downstairs loo needed replacing. With the pup unable to be left on his own at the moment, I was dispatched out on a solo mission - to implement "Operation Toilet Seat"! The toilet in the downstairs porcelain reading room is, at a whopping 37 centimetres wide, of Godzilla-like proportions. I soon found myself staring at a bewildering array of seats at a local DIY megastore armed only with a tape measure. I finally homed in on a likely suspect, made the purchase and dashed for home.

When I unpacked the object, I checked to see where it had been made (knowing in advance what the answer would be). Yes, of course, it had been manufactured in the People's Republic of China (PRC). I think we're doomed. The writing's on the wall. How is it that we can't even produce toilet seats? Is there nothing the PRC can't make?

The grey-suited functionaries currently shining their backsides in Brussels should be asking themselves the question: how is it that a country on the other side of the world can manufacture a simple domestic product, ship it to Europe and still sell it at a competitive price? Having established that our manufacturing costs are too high, the next question for the well-fed fonctionnaires should surely be - what do we have to do to make our industries more competitive? The answer is clear: we must reduce the punitive burden of the 'social charges' that European manufacturers are liable for.    

16th August. Here's a short video of Nutty - the latest addition to the household.. (I made it just for the record - Martin Scorcese it's not!)
The Edinburgh Festival has occasionally seen new comic talent emerge. Judging by the 10 Best Jokes from this year's festival, I think we can safely say that established comedians need have no further worries about their job security in 2017. I can't believe that these dire offerings are the 10 Best. If I told one of these, I'd expect no more than a polite smile - at best.    

Nutty
12th August. After the passage of a long year since we lost our golden boy, the house once again is alive with the sound of the pitter-patter of paws! We drove up to a cocker spaniel breeder in Lot-et-Garonne on Thursday and - surprise, surprise - we came away with a 2½ month old pup. There were around 12 of them vying for our attention but he stood out from the rest - he picked himself - but if I'm honest, I could have grabbed the whole squirming mass of them! There wasn't a single one that we wouldn't have given a home to.

We decided we needed time to make our minds up so we drove to nearby Duras to talk it over, away from the distraction of a dozen playful pups - with the help of a glass of the local red. By some quirk of French law, dogs have to be registered with a name with the initial letter for the year in question. This year's letter is N. In the end, we chose this little feller, who will soon be answering to the name of Nutty.. (once he's learned it!)  He's settled in quickly without any dramas, and we're looking forward to the day when we can take him out - another couple of weeks yet.

Today
Then
11th August. One for the ladies.. Here's an interesting tale from the dusty margins of history.. and it's one that I'd not heard before.

I'd once read somewhere that Coco Chanel had opened her first shop at Biarritz (left) in or around 1915 - but I was unaware of the rest of the story. A hundred years on, the location remains largely unchanged.

It appears that she'd had an independently wealthy English lover, Captain Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel, and, in the time-honoured fashion, he had generously advanced her the start-up money she'd needed to open up her first shops (she surprised him later by paying it all back in full!).

"Boy" & Coco
He was described as "an intellectual, politician, author, tycoon, polo-player and the dashing lover and sponsor of the fashion designer Coco Chanel" - and he continued seeing Coco Chanel after his marriage.. so, in the language of the day, he'd be classed as a cad and a bounder. In those days, the only punishment possible for a transgression such as this would have been a sound horsewhipping!☺ Today, her former shop in the centre of Biarritz is home to the Bookstore and Maison Adam - both of which are worth visiting.

I was just re-reading the above description of 'Boy' Capel and it occurred to me that we don't make them like that any more. Is there anyone around today who fits that description? I very much doubt it. Tragically, 'Boy' was to be killed in a road accident outside Cannes (either on a motorcycle or in a Rolls-Royce - the history books are unclear) in 1919.

Cotignac
There's now a "Boy" Capel Challenge - a classic car rally that does a lap of the Côte d'Azur, starting from Cannes and visits Aix-en-Provence, Gorge du Verdon, St. Paul de Vence before returning to Cannes. Here are the participants as they rumble through Cotignac (right).. a lovely Provençale village we visited a few years ago.

On the face of it, the world has changed greatly - but if you read this account of the hedonism of the twenties, it will quickly become apparent that 'excess' wasn't a product of the modern age - it had all been done long before.
9th August. Here's an interesting and thought-provoking documentary that tries to define progress. Today, more than ever, we are being constantly presented with "improvements" to existing technologies and when we're unable to absorb any more changes, we get new technologies thrust at us. 
In my lifetime, we've gone from playing music on 78rpm records - to 45s - to 33s, then to reel-to-reel tape recorders to cassettes, to CDs - and then it went crazy... Now, we have music available on MP3 players, USB sticks, our mobile phones, the cloud (?) and so it goes. (I'm sure I've missed a few steps out at the end there!). It's the same with photography. Without going through the same process of listing the changes in cameras over the last 50 years - just ask yourself how many obsolete cameras do you have tucked away gathering dust in drawers at home? (We must have at least 6 cameras of varying stages of obsolescence - no longer used.) 

During the last decade of my working life, a common mantra was that we had to "embrace change". 

And since then, politicians have used the need for change in their campaign slogans - but without defining exactly what that change would consist of, and perhaps more importantly, who it would benefit (apart from getting them elected!). 

If, however, we're against change, we're seen as reactionary dinosaurs. Surely we must establish the benefit of any change before adopting it lemming-like. Mobile phones are a good example. I have no need for a mobile phone. Let me repeat that: I have zero need for a mobile phone. Nada. Zip. Niente. I've inherited one from Madame but it just sits on the hall table and there it stays. Sometimes I feel all changed out!

Coming back from the Auvergne last week, we pulled off the A89 to find somewhere for lunch and we stopped at Montignac in the Dordogne. It was a "tourist-rich" environment and clustered around the entrance to a riverside restaurant we were contemplating were a number of English girls - each of them armed with an iphone. Instead of looking at the menus posted outside, they were frantically calling up the restaurant's page on Trip Advisor to see what people thought of it - before suddenly deciding that a restaurant across the river had received better reviews - and they were off!

6th August. The parking gods smiled on us this morning in Biarritz.. Yes, an August Sunday and we found a place straight off. We had to arrive there at 10am though! The town was alive with rumbling Harleys, blatting their "potato-potato" sound, and innumerable bloated German 4x4s. In the middle of all this, and close to where we parked, was a superb 40 year old example of what is arguably automobile perfection – an early 70s Porsche 911 in ice green - similar to the one here but different colour. No frills, no fat – just a lithe, supple and timeless shape designed for one thing and one thing only. These cars have their detractors I know but, aah, that shape.. This is the car I always wanted - a Porsche 912. Designed as an entry level model, it had a 1600 flat four and it was later upgraded with an 86bhp VW 2 litre four. As I never wished to blat around at the speed of heat, it would have suited me fine. Join me in drooling over this one here! This model was briefly affordable until just a few years ago but values have skyrocketed (40,000€+) in recent years as baby boomers chase the car of their teenage dreams.

Hard at it at the Bleu Café on the Grande Plage this morning!

3rd August. Please don't forget to send me your tips for including on my interactive map of our favourite affordable restaurants in France where they still cook to the old standards. By that I mean restaurants where the dishes are prepared and cooked in the kitchen - with not a microwave in sight! See here for further details.

2nd August. Just as the Fêtes de Bayonne kicked off last week, we escaped up to Salers in the Auvergne. For many people, Salers is famous for one thing: its grass-fed beef. The Salers breed has to be hardy to survive the long winters up at altitude and their thick coats are a rich mahogany red. They all seemed to be fitted with bells around their necks and so we were serenaded every evening by what sounded like gusts of wind blowing through a wind chime factory - as here!

Here's the village of Salers.. Three thousand feet up, it's built of volcanic basalt, and it presents a solid yet unprepossessing face to the world with its dark stone edifices and heavy split stone roof tiles.

This dourness is reflected in the food - here there are no large white plates with slices of meat artfully arranged on top of a mini-tower of 3 carottes rondelles - with a 'signature' swirl of jus.. (spare me!)
 No, it's solid fare here and there are such local delights as 'pounti' (I never got around to trying it) and something called a 'liogue'. (a large diameter sausage served sliced - this I did try). Another evening, I tried pig's trotter (foot) with foie gras. I must admit I wasn't sure what to expect with this! It turned out to be something that was the size of a slightly flattened tennis ball that had been breaded and deep-fried. It contained nothing readily identifiable (rather like a haggis!) and it was rather bland in taste. The jury's still out on that one. (Perhaps it was a tennis ball! Aagghh!)

A speciality of the Auvergne that I've had before is chou farci which translates as an unappetising-sounding 'stuffed cabbage' in Anglo-Saxon. It is anything but.. We had a healthy slice of this one lunchtime and it was delicious. (NB. Must use a savoy cabbage).

Another speciality of the region that we tasted was Gentiane Jaune. I think this falls straight into the "Acquired Taste" category. We've all done it - bought an exotic-looking bottle on an overseas trip, got home, tried it once, and then 10 years later you find it at the back of your drinks cupboard covered in dust with the screw-cap seemingly welded on. (Ask me how I know!)

La truffade
If I had to pick one dish that was omnipresent and exemplified all the local specialities, then I'd have to say it would be truffade.. perhaps the dish of the region. On one occasion, we had it twice in one day!

Here, the making of it is demonstrated by the presenter (below) who sounds as though his trousers are on fire (he comes in at 0:11). It is the ideal fuel if you anticipate digging a ditch sometime in the near future - but for bumbling around the lanes, visiting villages, it's probably a few calories too many! However, when it's accompanied by a glass of Saint-Pourçain rouge*, it all seems to make sense.. (More here)

* We've had the white Saint-Pourçain several times but the red was new to both of us - and very nice it was too. We now have a ½ case on order..
Let's not forget that this region of France was heavily involved in the 100 Years War.. The 15th century Château d'Anjony is one of those medieval structures that simply takes your breath away.. (more here and here)

Outside of the villages, the physical features of the landscape have been laid out on a grand scale:




As for the above video, I refuse to do anything (with my clothes on!) that requires me to cry out "Woo-hoo!"..

Meanwhile, I’m now smarting from a letter I opened at lunchtime. We’d been to St J de L one evening about a month ago and we were chatting on the way home - in a 50kmh limit with a known radar camera.. As I went by the camera at 57kmh I thought “Oh noooooo!”.

Oh yes, the fine came today. For doing 7 kmh over the limit (ie, just over 4mph) I have to pay a 90€ fine. Grrr!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

245. Traditional French restaurants

27th June. Just received this from Perry & Caroline Taylor - it hit my tickle button! Perry's a fine cartoonist in the Sempé mould.. but always with a twist of the South West. As he says::
Jazz musicians come from all around the world to play at Marciac, even the locals.
An unwelcome change has taken place in French restaurants over the last decade or two. It's the creeping blight of serving pre-prepared meals and it's eating away at one of France's greatest cultural offerings.

Yes, there are still affordable gems that exist - family-run hotels, restaurants, inns and cafés - that somehow have managed to survive with their standards intact, but sadly these places are slowly disappearing as the realities of modern life catch up with rural France. If they haven't yet disappeared, then la carte has shrunk with each passing year. Yes, the big names are still "out there" - but I'm talking about places that are routinely affordable - not the temples to gastronomy that you might go to to celebrate a major anniversary.

It costs (in ‘social’ charges) about 2000€ a month* to employ someone here on a modest wage – and that’s before you start paying them the wage..

* This figure was given to me recently - but please correct me if I'm wrong.

So the restaurateur has two choices: either put the prices up – or invest in a large microwave oven. Or perhaps both. Into the microwave oven goes pre-prepared food provided by these wholesale suppliers. Here are one company's offerings tailored for SW France.. These wholesale suppliers have similar products tailored for the rest of France.

I’m not suggesting that their products are of poor quality – but what they're doing is leveling the playing field. It's the "blandification" of cooking (as George Dubya might have said). It’s destroying the art of cooking – all you need to employ now are “ding” chefs* – who need far less training and knowledge, therefore they are cheaper. Also, fewer kitchen staff are required and kitchens themselves can be smaller thus allowing more profitable restaurant floorspace.  If you go into a restaurant, and they have a huge menu, you can guarantee you’re about to enjoy a pre-prepared meal. One major supplier employs 1900 people and delivers to 43,000 restaurants in France. 

* the sound the microwave makes when it’s finished!

I'm looking to build up a list of affordable restaurants from across all of France that serve food cooked in the traditional manner - using fresh ingredients, prepared and cooked in the restaurant kitchens. 

"How can I tell?" I hear you ask? You can tell - but you'll have to use your common sense - look at the number of covers in the dining room, the size of the menu and ask yourself is it likely that in the case of a menu that features 10-15 or more starters / main courses / desserts that they will all have been freshly prepared?

With the aid of a few kindred spirits, I've put together a map that shows what I'm after. If you've emerged from a restaurant feeling that the taste in your mouth is that of pre-prepared institutionalised food, then toss their card in the nearest bin. If, however, it's clear that you've been eating food that's been prepared on the spot (probably in a family-run restaurant) then I'd be grateful if you could send me the details and I'll include it on the map below. I'd need your name (a first name will be fine) - let me know if you are happy or not for me to include it in the description - the name of the restaurant, the address & postcode, the website if you know it, the type of food served (specialities etc) and a short description that summarised your experience. Don't forget to include what someone could expect to pay, including wine and coffee. See the examples on the map.

Needless to say, I have no involvement in any way, shape or form with any of the restaurants currently listed or any that may be listed in the future.

NB To see the map full size in the blog, click on the >> arrow at the top right of the map. If the text is compressed or you just want to see it in full screen, click here. The markers take a few seconds to load. Click on the photos to see them in larger format. Use the +/- buttons to zoom in or out. The position of each pointer is accurate so if you select 'Satellite' at top left and zoom right in, you can see exactly where the restaurant is.. 

To send your suggestion in, either use the Comment facility at the bottom of this post - or email me using the form in the left hand column. Also, if you visit any of these, I'd be interested in your views. Over to you!

Many thanks!

Saturday, 1 July 2017

244. The Lions roar at last!

25th July. We're in for a noisy night tonight.. there's a concert at the bullring with this shower.. (the bullring is just a couple of hundred metres from us) They've been practising most of the day and, without wishing to sound like my parents, well, fill in the rest yourselves!
23rd July. This morning we went to Sare - one of the most beautiful of all French villages - never mind just in the Pays Basque.


There was a Fiesta des Brocs taking place and neighbours of ours were stand-holders there so we were talked into going!

There's junk and there's junk.. There was junk of the kind we hoard in our attics, garages and cellars.. and there was junk of the kind you normally put straight into the bin.

I thought I'd seen everything until I looked at one stand and I saw a pair of false teeth for sale..! Who would buy them and for what? Cutting out pastry? And if someone wanted them to actually use - surely they'd have to try them for size on the spot.. Aaarrgghh!

Meanwhile, preparations for the annual Fêtes de Bayonne have been going on for the last few weeks - barriers, signs, parking - in anticipation of the flood of humanity that is about to roll over us like some vast, unstoppable, animated white and red tsunami.

This monster of a festival kicks off at 10pm on Wednesday evening.. Until you've lived in a town of 40,000 that's suddenly invaded by approximately 1.3 million people over 5 days it's impossible to have any idea of its impact. Have a look here. Time to re-open the escape tunnel!

22nd July. This next song has long been a personal favourite..


Here's the great Jacques Tati on the differences between English and French policemen!



21st July. Whenever I hear music played on a cimbalom, this actor's face* springs to mind. To me, he always defined sinister..  as in "Meestair Bond, we haf been expecting you..." or "Are you paying too much for your car insurance?" (maybe I'm wrong about the second one!) 

* Vladek Sheybal.. 

20th July. I'm not usually a great fan of videos taken by drones - but this one of the high-priced* Biarritz seafront is exceptional. (it does take a couple of minutes to get into its stride though!) As always, best in full screen and HD if your connection can manage it:
* As the saying has it - if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it!

18th July. More videos on Bayonne (NB. Liked them all - except for the ones showing bullfighting):
Uncomfortable afternoon here. It started off well this morning too.. it was cool while I took my bow saw to a small tree in the front garden that was rapidly becoming a medium-sized tree. I then had to take a saw and secateurs to all the branches and bag it all up ready for the déchetterie. It turned out to be thirsty work in the end!

During the afternoon, someone turned up the heat and by 6pm it was an oppressive 37° and sticky with it.. and then - boom - thunder, lightning and rain.. The temperature dropped 10° in as many minutes.

17th July. I've been busy these last few days painting the shutters from the two west-facing upstairs windows at the rear of the house. They bear the brunt of the winter weather - and as I've mentioned before, when it rains here, it rains! I decided to put two coats of Basque Rouge on them - and I suddenly realised that meant painting 16 sides! Both windows have two shutters so that's four to start with. Two sides to each shutter - makes 8 sides... Two coats for each side = 16! The paint took its time to dry in this hot weather too.. and once dry, we had the fun and games of putting them back up. They are not light.

Here are some beautiful images of the Basque country.. (photos mainly from the Spanish side)
9th July. Yesterday saw the dénouement of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand culminate with the 3rd and final Test against New Zealand. The Lions had gone into the tour with many pundits (all from New Zealand it has to be said!) predicting a 10-0 series whitewash.. and if that didn't happen, then at least a 3-0 blackwash in the three Tests at the hands of NZ was widely forecast. In case you're visiting from another planet, NZ won the 1st Test, the B&I Lions won the second - so everything hung on the outcome of the the 3rd Test.

Here it is:


7th JulyEric the Magic Carpenter™ is back with us.. He's doing some much-needed maintenance on our heavy wooden west-facing shutters upstairs at the rear of the house - where they bear the brunt of the winter storms. The shutters that face west are solid, built from pine (?) planks with a z bar reinforcement. He cut out the rotten bits and replaced them with new wood where necessary. There are four of them, each about 6ft high and heavy, and they're not easy to heave on and off their external mountings without falling out of the window! We had a near-miss this morning where Eric was very close to achieving this trick at one stage! More acrobatics this afternoon!

He arrived at 7.30am - worked through without a break until 12 noon, went home for his lunch - started again at 1.15pm and left at 6pm - after tidying everything up and sweeping out the garage where he'd been working. He took down and completely overhauled 3 shutters (including repainting them in undercoat), made a new shutter from scratch, fitted a new complicated closing mechanism, replaced a rotten timber support on the garage door, re-hung the sliding garage doors (without being asked) and fitted a new section of skirting board in the sitting room. What a star!

4th July. I hope readers across the US have a happy 4th July! Best wishes to all!

The heat has returned.. It's up around 32° this afternoon with 35° forecast for tomorrow. I'll be off downstairs in a minute to make something long and cold.

It's now 7.30pm and it's 38° on our terrace. As much as we like the heat, it's too hot to sit out. Fortunately, the house stays cool in hot weather.

1st July. I'm a passionate British & Irish Lions supporter, and while I was delighted and thankful for that hard-fought win in the 2nd Test against New Zealand, I have to say that there has been a gap (but not a gulf) in the standard between NZ Test rugby and that offered up by the B&I Lions. NZ has always played a fast, hard-hitting and frenetic brand of rugby.. believing that, as opposition bodies and minds tire, the relentless aggression from NZ would keep the scoreboard ticking over. However, the perceived 'gap' is not nearly as big as some in New Zealand would have us believe.. The physical conditioning of northern hemisphere players has improved dramatically and so I think that the 'gap' (if it still exists) has narrowed to the point where a Lions win on Saturday is eminently do-able, now that Gatland has found his winning mix of players.

The 2nd Test was a "must win" game for the Lions, especially given that Beauden Barrett had an off day with his kicking, the match was played in torrential rain and NZ went down to 14 men after losing Sonny Bill Williams - who was justifiably red-carded early on in the match following a brutal shoulder charge into Anthony Watson's face. In my book, this was not accidental. This was the NZ win-at-all-costs mentality and it came back to bite them.

But, as we're constantly being told, a win's a win and the record books will only show that the Lions defeated NZ at Wellington in the 2nd test for the ABs first home defeat in 8 years. One major positive was that, unlike the B&I Lions, the ABs were unable to score a try at home.. How often does that happen* - especially as the NZ media had been castigating the Lions for their lack of tries. And hats off to the Lions fans who would have raised the roof with their fervent support - if the Westpac stadium had had one! * It's 39 games since New Zealand last failed to score a try. 

Here's the full match in two halves:



I remain to be convinced that this B&I Lions selection truly reflects the best rugby players in the British Isles - but that's by the by - the last 15-20 minutes was one way traffic. Well done you Lions..! And well done Kieran Read for being gracious in defeat.

I think the crucial 3rd Test has the potential to be a brutal encounter but let's hope it's won by good rugby and that the spectacle is not marred by violence. The match will be officiated by the excellent French referee Romain Poite..     

Thursday, 1 June 2017

243. Perfect morning in Saint-Jean-de-Luz

30th June. It's a showery 17° this morning - and the garden looks all the better for it. After the scorching heat here in mid-June, I was half expecting to come back home to a frazzled, fried, charbroiled back garden.. but all remained green where it should be.

Tomorrow will see the first wave of summer tourists arriving here.. and the season proper will run from then for the two peak months of July and August. September is the best month here in the Pays Basque - tourists with families will have returned home leaving only the "silver" tourists. The weather stabilises with temperatures averaging out at 25° and the sea is as warm as it will ever get. The season continues at a slightly lower ebb until the end of October when it is effectively over.    

29th June. Each year there's a Celtic festival at Lorient that attracts thousands of people from Europe's western fringes. On the face of it it seems like nothing more than a harmless bit of folklore and a desire for expressing regional identity in an increasingly homogenous Europe, but I remain to be convinced that all the music, the dancing and the costumes is legitimately rooted in Celtic cultural history. I hope I don't come across as an old curmudgeon, but to me, a non-Celt (or, more accurately, a part-Celt), it appears to be an uneasy mixture of dancing waiters with wrap-around "shades",  and hairy old Jocks - all sprinkled with a touch of Disney with an eye to the tourist. See what you think:
   
I think my old dog would have been hiding under the stairs with his paws over his ears!

28th June. We heard today that the temperatures peaked at 40° here while we were away. This explains the burnt grass verges as we came south.

Who said: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."? Answer at the foot of this post.

27th June. On 20th June, we escaped the unusually oppressive heat of the Pays Basque and drove north to Brittany for a planned break, first over-nighting at Pluherlin, a couple of kms from quaint Rochefort-en-terre (below - voted France's favourite village in 2016) before stopping at Cap-Coz, just a stone's throw to the south of Fouesnant (itself just to the south and east of Quimper).

Unfortunately, the heat followed us up north because the temperature at Pluherlin was around 35°.. and there was no air conditioning in the otherwise delightful hotel. (how spoilt we've become!). After a sticky and restless night, we set off for Cap-Coz. Once there, the lower humidity was a refreshing and very welcome change after the oven-like temperatures we'd had in the south west. Our hotel was situated almost at the water's edge and our room looked south over the calm blue waters of the bay. The same family had owned the hotel since 1919 and we were very well looked after indeed by the friendly and charming staff. The chef (the owner's brother) was a real artist in the kitchen and every meal we had there was a delight.

We visited Bénodet (right - a yachting centre par excellence) where this Breton gaff rigged cutter came lickety-split into the channel, heeling over through a crowd of boats - a fine sight; a flying visit to the ancient walled port of Concarneau; explored Quiberon (below); Pont-Aven (a must-see for those who like Paul Gauguin's work); Loctudy and the austere grey granite village of Locronan. From there, we followed the coast as it swung around to the north west and we stopped at Telgruc-sur-Mer with its inspirational views of the bay of Douarnenez and deserted white sandy beaches before continuing to Morgat (whose beach was voted a surprising 14th in the world by Guardian readers). An "antiques" market was in progress where we snapped up a couple of reasonably priced old wine glasses that had caught our eye - I always think wine tastes better from an old glass (just as tea tastes better from a china cup, rather than a mug). Then there was Quimper.. a lively bustling Breton town with, I was pleased to note, several quirky individual shops. Long may people fight against the increasing blight of the sameness of our towns.

Here's a video that shows what Quimper is all about:

This (below) is a shot of the beach at Cap-Coz. I would say that (if you have any choice in the matter) you should try and visit the region in June.

We were away while the 1st Test Match between NZ All Blacks and the B&I Lions was played on 24th June. I dare say that readers in New Zealand and fans of All Black rugby worldwide will have been pleased at the outcome of the match. I had hoped that the Lions could have pulled off an unlikely win in the AB's back yard but it wasn't to be. Unfortunately, those responsible for selecting the Lions squad have to ensure that the home nations are all represented. This policy is responsible for the inherent fault line that has historically run through the majority of Lions squads as a result. I think until the best player for a given position is selected, regardless of which home nation he comes from, we'll continue to be beaten. There are players out there who shouldn't be there and there are players at home who should be there. This is an additional constraint for the Lions. The other is that they have so little time together as a squad prior to playing the best of the southern hemisphere. It can be done - and it has been done before - but it's a massive challenge in today's game.      

I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the 1st Test yet - but here it is for those of you who wish to see it.


19th June. With all the heat we've been enjoying recently, I just realised that I've completely forgotten to keep you posted with the key matches from the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. They had an uneven start to the tour, due I think partly to the compressed fixture list, coupled with the fact that for some reason known only to Warren Gatland, the touring party arrived in NZ only 3 days before the first match. Here's last Saturday's match played against the Maori All Blacks..

Next weekend sees the 1st Test against the full All Black side.. 

It's now up around 37° in the late afternoon. Might have to take my duffle coat off!

I went for a speed walk along the boardwalk at Anglet this morning. At my max taxying speed, I can get to the far end in just under half an hour, followed by a quick turn around and then back again. There were waves of heat rising up from the path.. and when I finally arrived back at the car, it indicated 34½°. I was steaming when I arrived back at the house. If you click on the photo (right) you should be able to see the start point near the top and the turn around point by all the restaurants below. (look for the yellow X)

The season has definitely started.. car with foreign plates and camper vans are trundling around in ever-increasing numbers. The season proper starts in less than a couple of weeks and that means waving goodbye to a parking space in Biarritz.  

This picture made me smile!
Keep calm and mow the lawn!
15th June. In the interests of balance, here are a couple of images of Bayonne to even things up a little. The river in the foreground is the Nive, (with the much-lamented rowing club at bottom left) before it joins forces with the mighty Adour in the background on its way to the Bay of Biscay. (worth clicking on this one)



This one is taken from the Citadel, overlooking the town and the Pyrenees:
9th June. Here is the view of the Grande Plage at Biarritz as seen from the lighthouse. We always take our visitors here for what is arguably the best view in town:


4th June. France 2 put on a programme the other night about young musical prodigies called "Prodiges" and, in my view, Marin, a young (12) clarinettist, stole the show:
These two precocious youngsters ran Marin very close for my top spot.. very easy to warm to these two!
More of these richly talented young prodigies here.

1st June. We went off early this morning to buy some lawn edging (ooh, the excitement of it!) from a garden centre outside Bayonne the size of Rutland - and after that it seemed like a good idea to zip down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz to enjoy the 1st of June. Madame needed to stock up with some flimsy accoutrements and we also needed to check the menus on a couple of our favourite restaurants as we have a marital milestone approaching. Here's a listing of all the restaurants in and around Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the comments - I think some of them might be malicious. 

Once again, we pinched ourselves as we walked along the sea front - perfect weather and Saint Jean looked at its best. We'd wanted to have lunch at the Buvette de la Halle but they don't open properly until 14th June so we ended up having lunch at Le Fandango, in rue de la République.. grilled sardines and a green salad for Madame and a salad with roquefort, chorizo, croutons etc for me plus a glass each of a homemade sangria.. What was the damage I hear you ask? 33€ including coffee. My only comment would be that calling itself a bar brasserie is - in the words of the much-missed Alan Clark - being economical with the actualité.    

Answer: Sir Winston Churchill.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

242. The swallows are back..

27th May. While Madame was out at the market buying some sardines (among other things) this morning, I was heaving our trusty plancha (right) out from its winter storage in the garage. It didn't need much in the way of titivation as I'd lightly greased all the metal parts prior to putting it away last November. With a new gas bottle in place, the sardines were soon sizzling away and the bottle of rosé sitting in an ice bucket was pulling "open me" faces! 

I say this every year I'm sure and this is probably heresy to "Barbeque Man" but nothing cooks better outdoors than a plancha. I've tried them all - those little Hibachi BBQs in the 60s & 70s, the Weber kettle BBQs in the 80s, gas BBQs in the 90s - been there, done that. Sticks, firelighters, charcoal lighting fluid, the jokey aprons (you know the ones I mean!) - they can all be junked. With a plancha, there's no fuss, no dramas, no clouds of blue smoke drifting over the neighbouring gardens.. Just food cooked to perfection!  

Not convinced? Try this on your barbeque! ☺
26th May. Back from a steamy visit with family - it was 35° up there in Andernos-les-Bains.. It was too hot to be out in the sun there so we stayed indoors in the air conditioned coolth (is this a word?!) of the house.  Once back home in the Pays Basque, we were relieved to find the temperature was a welcome 10° cooler. Later on in the evening, the skies darkened, the wind began to blow* and the stage was set for a rumble.. and we weren't disappointed. It arrived around 11pm - the sky was almost continuously lit up with lightning and then the rain started. We have a small balcony at the front of the house and towards midnight I stood out there in my pyjamas hoping to get arrested enjoying the light show. It was quite spectacular! 
* known as a brouillarta here.
Here's (yet) another look at the Pays Basque.. OK, the coast has all the hot spots and those "must see" places that have to be visited if it's your first time here - but I would argue that the interior merits equal attention. It has an added advantage - while frustrated and frazzled motorists on the coast crawl from one tourist honey pot to the next in long shimmering tailbacks, the interior is by comparison virtually car-free. That's all I'm saying! 
We're off to Andernos-les-Bains for the day today so you'll have to talk among yourselves while we're away or - have another look at our town..!
25th May. The forecast today was for 33° so we decided to go down to the beach early for a walk before the day became too hot. Just as well we did because by 11am it was already 28° - and so after having lunch outside we moved back indoors this afternoon. The outside temperature in the shade is now 35° at 6.30pm..

Here's a quirky reminder of what Bayonne looks like.. I think it's a photogenic town but it's hard to see it now with fresh eyes after 10 years.. See what you think.  
I made one of my "specials" yesterday evening to cool off with.. Into a tall glass, pour a measure of white rum (from the French islands if you can find it), then add a similar quantity of sugar cane syrup. Then take a couple of limes and squeeze them. Add the juice to the glass. Stir well. Finally, top up the glass to the brim with cracked ice. This is hard to make if you don't have a machine for grinding ice cubes into fragments - but do your best. It's worth the effort. Find a shady spot - and enjoy!      

23rd May. I was upstairs earlier getting ready to go out - when there was a light thump at the window. Lying on the window ledge was a small yellow bird that was clearly dazed. This is becoming a habit! (two others did the same thing last year) It appeared to be still alive (just) so I took it downstairs and sat it in the garden while it slowly recovered its bearings. After about 20 minutes, it flew off to a nearby bush and vanished in the tangle of roots.

On coming back home, there was no sign of it so no harm done. I think that's about the third or fourth one that's done this particular trick in the last few months. It looked like one of these - that's as specific as I can be - I'd say it was a juvenile goldfinch (probably maybe).

19th May. I've been trying for a while to find a video that shows what rowing is like from the inside.. The problem is - you can't row and take a picture at the same time. It needed the advent of GoPro cameras - sturdy, small & autonomous - to open it up. Here's one that doesn't do a bad job of portraying the sport - apart from the music. It would have been better if we could have just heard the rhythmic whoooosh whoosh of the sliding seats and the sound of water bubbling under the boat:

If anyone knows of a good rowing (not sculling) video where you can hear just the sound of rowing (without a $&ù§?à music track!) I'd be grateful if you could send me the URL, and I'll post it here. Contact me via the link above the visitor counter in the left hand margin. Thanks! 
  
17th May. I try not to pay too much attention to political tittle-tattle (meat and drink for rolling news channels) and there's certainly no shortage of that at the moment on this side of the Atlantic. In France, there's much interest in the composition of President Macron's new government (with legislative elections to follow in June); in the UK, political pundits are unanimous in anticipating a landslide election victory for Prime Minister Theresa May on 8th June - plus there's the ongoing Brexit saga as British negotiators prepare to lock horns with the assorted suits of the EU.

However, my ears pricked up after listening to some of the claims and counter-claims emerging from the US (summary of the salient points here). I can't help but think that Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, has either been remarkably unlucky, spectacularly misquoted, poorly advised or just plain dumb (or all of the above!). It could also be that he's the latest example of the bull who carries his own china shop around with him. Surely he is surrounded by advisers who can guide him through the political minefields of Washington?

The "impeachment" word has started to be bandied about.. and we haven't heard that since 1998. Only one President in my lifetime has been impeached (President Nixon beat the House to the draw by resigning in advance). I view the impeachment process as evidence that no-one is above the law in the US. President Trump appears to be sailing very close to the wind and now the FBI has been given a week to hand over records & transcripts of conversations from the White House. Brace yourselves..

Meanwhile, here's a timely reminder of when, on a hot Texas morning 55 years ago, a young President inspired a nation - and a watching world:
(Entire speech here)

Watch "Journey to Space" here.. best in full screen) 

16th May. I was out in the garden yesterday doing a few small jobs when I was minded to check the temperature.. We've a thermometer out there in the shade and it was registering 30°! I've just come indoors after doing some more work out there and it's now a sultry 31° at 4pm.. Phew! Suddenly it's summer. And Madame has just returned from a trip into town and even she was complaining about the heat. I think we might be due for a storm this evening.  

10th May. A long-lost cousin of mine arrived in town a couple of days ago in a camper van from a holiday in southern Spain. We spent the last two days catching up and visiting all the "must see" places in the Pays Basque. We got up to speed on Monday evening with dinner at Chez Pantxua before heading out on Tuesday for Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Dancharia, Itxassou - for lunch at Esteben Borda (right) - where we were defeated by the generosity of the lunch - and the quantity of the wine! It's not often you'll hear me say that - before we headed back to Bayonne.

Today, we did Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Les Aldudes (for lunch at Pierre Oteiza - highly recommended!), Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry and Espelette. Fortunately, the weather gods smiled on us on both days - we were blessed with temps up in the high twenties - and so our visitors saw the Pays Basque at its very best. The roads inland were traffic free and it was a real pleasure to show them why we are so well-rooted here.
Although this bridge over the river Nive at Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry is known as the Roman Bridge, it actually dates from 1661. Looking down from the ancient bridge and watching foot-long trout in the crystal-clear waters below was addictive - a trout would give an occasional flick of the tail to hold station over a stone, then its dark shadow would slide across the river bed followed by a sudden sparkling dart and a spreading ripple as one took an insect - but we had to move on.



The grooves worn in the cobbled surface bear witness to the use made of the bridge by countless heavily laden carts and wagons over the centuries travelling to and from nearby Spain.

8th May. And so today we enter the era of Macronomics. There's much optimism and enthusiasm on TV for the new man but it's early days yet. I think he'll find his hands are tied by the "Golden Rules" just as Hollande's were - thus the only actions available to him are those that cost little or nothing to implement, but generate the impression of activity. His record will be judged on his reaction to threats to the country's security and the economy, notably the unemployed and the unemployable. Can he connect with the people? Can he convince the unions to back him? Can he get his reforms and legislation through the National Assembly without a party machine? He has a massive challenge ahead of him. 

Meanwhile, the first swallows are back. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

241. April showers in the Basque Country

2nd May. We're back after a few days away visiting A-M, an old friend who has a house at Le Montat, just outside Cahors (capital of the Lot department). A-M and Madame taught French together at a school in England and she now divides her time between her ancestral home at Le Montat and a small town in the West Midlands in England - and it would be difficult to imagine two places that had less in common than these two. Le Montat would have been a comfortable 4 hour drive (virtually all autoroute) from Bayonne, if we'd driven there non-stop.

Le Montat is situated in what's known as la France profonde.. which means that the pace of life is delightfully slow and blissfully tranquil. La France profonde has been defined as a rural area of France that has preserved its authenticity, where time is not a rushing river but a meandering brook. Her house (above) dates back to the 18th century and it's full of character. In the garden, there was no sound except the distant puttering of a light aircraft a few miles away as it towed a glider up into the sky. A-M has two brothers - J-R and B - and they both have houses in the village. It's hard for someone raised in suburban England to imagine the enduring pull of family roots that have locked successive generations of the same family into one small village. Walking around the honey-coloured village with A-M, every house had a story to tell and every passing car (not that there were many!) gave us a friendly wave and exchanged a quick word with her.

On Saturday evening, the plan was that we were going to take a dinner that A-M had prepared to J-R's house. We loaded a large casserole (containing her aromatic chicken dish) and a few other intriguing bags into her car and we drove the few yards to his house. A large wood-burning stove was doing a good job of warming the house while we unloaded the meal in the kitchen: corks were extracted from bottles of wine, bread was cut and once everything organised, there was the 'pop' of a champagne cork and seconds later a mother and daughter (with good hearing!) from the village arrived to make up the six-some. At the table, there was asparagus, the chicken dish (mmm!), some Basque cheese and a gateau basque.. all of which was eased down with the help of some Irouléguy and a fine bottle of Pomerol.. (la vie est dure!) A wonderful evening.

Here's a picture that should help you to orientate yourself as to where wines I've mentioned often here - such as Irouléguy, Jurançon, Madiran - stem from. I used to drink Gaillac in England but unfortunately Madame's not wild about it. Tursan is another one. Cahors is an inky black full-bodied wine that we don't see too often here. Very drinkable.

I woke up on Sunday morning after a brief but satisfying coma, and stepped outside to savour the silence. The plan was to visit a nearby village for lunch and so with about an hour to go before lunchtime, the four of us headed off into the countryside (past endless rows of the Malbec grape vines that were destined for the famous 'black wine' of Cahors) to Saint-Cirq Lapopie, one of the most beautiful villages in France. J-R was kind enough to volunteer to do the driving, thus releasing me to enjoy the countryside as it passed by.

This medieval village in pale stone would clearly be a tourist honey pot during the prime summer months but on that Sunday we were able to park the car next to our destination - Lou Pastis Quercynois.. (try saying that while eating a Cornish pasty!). We found a table outside overlooking the village (right) and we started off with a copieux (as they say here) serving of terrine de foie gras on toast..
I have to say more courses followed but we'll draw a veil over those.. otherwise you'll be salivating on your keyboards. (website here)

We burnt off some of this superb lunch by waddling around the narrow winding streets of this magnificently preserved medieval village.
A village house being restored
J-R took us next to Cahors where he gave us a guided tour by car (as it was threatening to rain) through the ancient streets before we finished up at the Pont Valentré, a 14th century six span stone bridge across the Lot river. We walked across it while J-R drove around to meet us on the other side. By any measure, this was a stunning technical achievement for the time. Construction started in 1308 and it was opened in 1350.

Sadly, our weekend was over all too soon and we said our fond farewells and headed back home on Monday morning. This is an area I'd like to explore further.

More on Cahors and its surroundings here:
Here's Jean-Luc Petitrenaud, the travelling TV gastronome, with one of his weekly programmes on France 5 that explore the gastronomic delights of France. In this episode, he investigates Cahors. (here's Le Balandre, featured in the programme) Don't worry if your French is not up to speed - sit back and let your eyes do the work:
This made me smile: I was listening to a phone-in radio programme on the BBC this afternoon while making myself a coffee and the presenter took a call from a man who had the following question:

"Where should I stand in the kitchen so that I won't be in the way..!"

It still makes me laugh now about 5 hours later..

Two stray neurons must have collided in my brain because I was suddenly reminded of Franco - the ever-smiling polyglot receptionist (5 languages and counting) on the night desk at the hotel when I was based in Pordenone, in northern Italy during the Balkans unpleasantness in the 1990s. He'd make me a much-needed double espresso (aka a heart-starter) at 2.30am and we'd chat while I was waiting for the rest of the crew to show up for an early flight. One of his favourite sayings was: "La vie est dure, et les femmes coûtent chères et les enfants sont facile à faire.."* and it never failed to put a smile on my face - even at 2.30am!

* Life is hard, wives are expensive and children are easy to make.

29th April. A new word for my reader(s): a quockerwodger - I'm sure you can think of a politician who fits the description without needing any help from me.
 
21st April. An "unknown ancient reptile roamed the Pyrenees" is a headline from the BBC's news page. You could be excused for thinking that they're talking about a rare sighting of DSK.. but no, the bruised Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been maintaining a suitably reptilian low profile - but it seems that's not low enough for even Hollywood to ignore. There's a film proposed on his travails.. but as yet, no director or cast have been identified. I would think this film would slither easily into the "Wouldn't touch it with a bargepole" category, no matter how much you pay anyone. Wait for: "How much? Where do I sign..?"

17th April. Sorry for the hiatus here.. Both of us have been suffering from an odd cough that refuses to go away. There's a suspicion that it might be pollen related. We've been gulping down the antibiotics, cough mixture, inhalers et al but to no avail. The antibiotics are doing a great job of sending us to sleep in the afternoons. I'll be glad when we're free of it. We've also had to cancel a holiday in Croatia we'd booked in May - due to other factors. All in all, not a good start to the year.  

8th April. It's all set for a steamy weekend here according to the forecast: 27° for today and tomorrow (80°F). This means eating out on the terrace at midday and possibly again in the evening. The downside? The dreaded shorts might have to be brought out!☺

2nd April. This morning, Madame was putting together a little treat for Sunday lunch - blanquette de veau - which admittedly is a bit of a time-consuming dish to make, and so I was released to go for some fresh air along the boardwalk at Anglet. On arrival, I found it was busy with all manner of joggers, sportifs, waddlers and stumblers (your guess as to which category I fit into).

We'd had a blowy day yesterday and this morning a gusty wind was blowing out of the north west over an agitated sea. However, the sky looked clear of rain and so I set off southwards on a brisk 30 minute walk to Le Rayon Vert, a beachside café, just to the north of Biarritz. Once there, I didn't hang about as one or two grey clouds had appeared on the western horizon. I turned around and headed back to the car while keeping a watchful eye on the low grey rain clouds that had formed up out over the sea.  It wasn't long - no more than about 10 minutes - before I felt the first drops of rain. Despite thinking "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" - within 5 minutes I was completely wet through - as in drenched. Was I glad to see the car!

Blanquette de veau
Once home, I stood dripping in the hall, my nose twitching with the wine-rich smells drifting out of the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, I had dry clothes on and I was enjoying an eyes-closed moment as I inhaled the steamy aromas rising off the blanquette de veau (left) that Madame had set in front of me. I poured two glasses of Haut-Médoc and set to work. I love Sundays!
        
We were looking at electric bikes the other day. at Newteon, Anglet - they had a good range of electric bikes available to buy or hire. (Map here) Madame hasn't been well lately and she wants to get out on her bike again but I think she'll need some assistance - so possibly an electric bike will be the answer. (by the way - that's Bayonne from 0:43 to 1:00). We'll probably rent a couple for the day to see how she gets on with one. (Pedego Biarritz here)