Tuesday, 15 December 2009

38. It's a sign!

Sitting in traffic this evening I felt my attention being drawn to a hypnotic green neon sign for a Pharmacie (chemist). The green cross design was sequencing through a mind-boggling series of rotations and flashes, including displaying the time and the temperature before going back into the flashing cycle. It reminded me of yet another difference in daily life between this side of the Channel and the other. Some French shopping institutions have evolved their own particular street signs - here are a few for the pharmacy.

The other distinctive ones I can recall are for Tabac (Tobacconists) and (this is where it gets slightly curious) Chevaline - horse butchers. You might wonder why they bother but if you happen to be looking for a specific type of shop they do make finding one that little bit easier.

I was trying to think of the UK equivalents.. and all I could come up with was the red and white spiral-striped barber's pole and the three golden balls for the pawnbrokers. Chemists sometimes had a gold mortar and pestle sign.
The illuminated Tabac sign is said to resemble a double ended carrot, often with TABAC spelled out.. Apparently the 'carrot' symbol stems from former times when pipe smokers would keep a piece of carrot in their tobacco pouch to keep their tobacco moist. When I used to smoke and I was gasping for a ciggy, the illuminated Tabac signs were a godsend.
I can understand the need for a easy-to-spot sign if you've a desperate need for a pharmacie or a Tabac - but a horse butchers? The sign for a horse butchers is a gilded horse's head that juts out from the wall. How many times have you found yourself dashing out of the house, all of a quiver for a horsemeat steak ("Just gotta have one!").. running around town with wild eyes looking for a shop with the gilded horse's head sign..? Exactly.. Here's a somewhat battle-damaged horse butchers (above right) from what looks like the immediate post-war years - and, incidentally, I don't think I'd be busting a gut to step inside this shop, would you? I'm reminded of the butchers in the film "Delicatessen".. 
I'm not sure that many Brits would ever contemplate the idea of eating horse meat - I think most would find the whole thing quite repugnant - but I must be honest, having tried it on 2 occasions, I have to admit that they were two of the best steaks I've ever had. I tried it once knowingly in France and the second time, in Italy, unknowingly. I won't be doing it again though.

During the Balkans conflicts in the mid 90s, over a period of 4 years I probably spent half that time based in Italy, just to the north of Venice. Madame came out a few times and, on one memorable occasion, we were out having dinner in a traditional restaurant in town with J, the wife of a colleague who was working. I'd become reasonably adept at decoding Italian menus and, being all pizza'd out, we decided we'd go for a meat dish. Feeling like trying something different, looking at the meat section, I spotted filetto di puledro.. It was clearly a fillet of some kind of meat so we ordered three. They arrived served in a reduced red wine sauce and we enjoyed them very much.. When it came to the bill, I asked the waitress what they were and eventually she said the word for a horse in Italian (cavallo) and then said 'piccolo' - meaning little.. ie, a foal. Eek!

Neither Madame or I felt too happy about that but our unease was as nothing compared to J's. I should have mentioned that she was a keen horsewoman. She went white and so I quickly ushered her outside as I thought she looked very close to a spectacularly lavish demonstration of projectile vomiting..

Moving swiftly on, while we're on the subject of Italy, one year I found a delicatessen in Italy that stocked two of Madame's favourite things combined into one.. It was a tin decorated in an ornate fin de siècle style that contained marrons glacés* that had been dipped in plain chocolate. To say that these hit the spot would be understating the case. And needless to say, I've never been able to find them again since.** And, coming back to the Pays Basque, last Christmas I went around all of the specialist chocolatiers in Bayonne hoping that one of them might have them, or might make some for me. I described what I was looking for but I met with the same universal response - or rather, lack of response - everywhere. No-one was interested in dipping a few marrons glacés in dark chocolate for me.. It was a demonstration of French culinary chauvinism -

"We don't do them like that here.."

Yes, I know that, but could you - just this once?

"If you want marrons glacés like that, you'd better go back to Italy.."

Etc etc.

Back to more domestic issues, we're having our Christmas dinner here at the weekend before we leave next week to go up to Paris. Commander-in-Chief (Home) has decreed that a Christmas pudding might just be on the agenda. Be still my beating heart!

* The brand was La Castagna Glassata Di Majani.. ricoperta di finissimo cioccolato fondente..

** Just found another site in Italy that has them! Guiliani I'll order some when we return in the New Year.

Friday, 11 December 2009

37. One to try at home

I'm not sure where this story fits in the overall scheme of things but I'll leave that for you to work out. Down at the rowing club one of the rowers is M.. He used to play scrum half for Aviron Bayonnais (the local top 14 rugby club) and he's a bit of a character. We were all out having a social event somewhere - it was a standard French night out, the red was going down well, everyone was talking, no-one was listening - when he suddenly came out with his patent method of how to return safely to the marital bed in the wee small hours after a late night out on the town.. on his own.

He said what he does, if he wishes to avoid a prolonged stay in the:
is to open the front door of his house ultra quietly, then tiptoe slowly upstairs before getting completely undressed in the spare room. (Been there, done that) Now this is the part that made us all laugh - he then backs slowly into the marital chamber. The idea being that if his wife wakes up and puts the bedside light on, all he has to do is to stop dead and freeze - facing the door - which is when he claims that he's just got up to go for a Nelson*. Works every time apparently! His demo (clothed!) had us all crying with laughter!

Nelson Riddle (Cockney rhyming slang m'lud)

I picked up the new car this evening.. and I must sit down and give the handbook a good read because there's a daunting amount of technology in the thing. Problem is the handbook's in French so the VW dealer said he would order one for us in Anglo-Saxon and give it to us free of charge.. (that has a pleasing ring to it!)

Tonight we're having a real winter's favourite - Potée Auvergnate. This is real comfort food - and it's guaranteed to make you feel better.

It's a French country dish from - well, several regions have staked a claim to it - but the Auvergne probably has the strongest ownership claim. A joint of gammon, sausages various, potatoes, Savoy cabbage, carrots - all braised in a rich stock.. Add a splodge of grainy moutarde à l'ancienne.. and stand well back while I get to work.

This picture is the closest I could find to Madame's version. If you're thinking that I'm spoiled, then you'd be absolutely right! Wonder why we didn't have Savoy cabbage as kids? It's delicious.. We once went to a restaurant in Paris that specialised in country cooking from the Auvergne and Savoy cabbage featured quite heavily. Forget the terminally boiled soggy cabbage of school dinners of days of yore - Savoy cabbage lends itself to all kinds of imaginative and tasty recipes.. not least of which is the one above.

I'm going to drift downstairs now and see if I can get in the way of the chef.. so talk amongst yourselves for a while!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

36. Computery stuff

A little bird tells me that Père Noël (aka Father Xmas), in the form of Madame, might just be popping a mini camcorder into my Christmas stocking in a few weeks time. I managed to sneak a quick peek at the packaging to read the all-important system requirements. (system meaning my PC) I appear to be OK for space on my hard drive but it looks like I'll need a Pentium 4 2.8 or equivalent CPU as my current one won't be up to the job. What I know about CPUs could be typed, double spaced, in a large font, on the back of a postage stamp so I've just spent the last few hours researching the subject on the internet. This saga is slightly complicated by the fact that my processor isn't a Pentium - it's an AMD. Figuring out the equivalence and whether my motherboard can take a hot new processor is a riveting way of spending an afternoon.. I won't bore you with the details except to say that they are offered on ebay around the world at fairly hefty prices but I managed to find a local chap in Anglet (5 mins away) who has one for sale at a reasonable price.

Quick diversion: the cartoon below shows what you can easily end up doing on the internet if you're not careful..

Saw a car sticker here today that made me smile: "No ABS or airbags - I'll die like a man!"

If you feel in the mood for some escapism, I suggest you look no further than the following clip from "Out of Africa":
Madame spent some of her formative years at Brazzaville in the Congo - her father was in the French Air Force - and we've often thought about going back there. The sticking point is that Brazzaville has for many years been top of the list of the world's most dangerous towns, along with Pointe Noir on the coast where she used to have holidays. While she has many fond memories of Africa I'm not too keen on the idea of having a one-way conversation with someone who's idly dangling a rusty machete at his side and so we're now thinking of visiting Kenya instead one day.. I'm tempted by Lamu on the coast.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

35. Seasonal thoughts

At this time of the year, our thoughts are inevitably drifting towards Christmas. We're going to be staying with family and friends in and around Paris over Christmas and the New Year and we've been thinking of what we can bring them.. One thing springs to mind as a "cannot fail" crowd-pleaser and that's champagne. The famous quote by Tante Lily Bollinger (right) of the eponymous champagne house says it all.. In reply to the question posed by a Daily Mail journalist, "When do you drink champagne?" - she offered this very memorable answer:

"I only drink champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

I wouldn't argue with a single word of that.. except to add I wish I could afford such largesse!!

The following summer after Madame and I were married, we were driving back up to England from the Pays Basque after our first holiday together there and we'd been invited to break the journey with P & A, two of her good friends. P was the marketing manager for Mumm champagne.. (you can see where this is going already can't you!) Anyway, we arrived at their lovely house at St-Maur on the banks of La Marne just outside Paris in the late afternoon to find P & A sat around a table in their garden with their two boys. After much vigorous kissing and handshaking, P disappeared inside the house, emerging moments later with a bottle of Mumm and some glasses.

went the cork, glasses were clinked, toasts were drunk and Madame and I soon started to unwind after the long hot drive from the Pays Basque. It wasn't long before the bottle was "morte" and P went off to fetch another.. I'd not been accustomed to drinking champagne in quantity before - normally, a glass or two at a wedding, or maybe a bottle between friends... but this was different. It seemed P had an unlimited supply of the stuff in his cellar because when we went inside for dinner, another bottle appeared on the table. And I think another one or two after that. In fact, we drank nothing else from the time we arrived to when we finally (much later) crawled gratefully up the stairs to bed.

With it being available in such quantity, I felt able to experiment with different methods of drinking it. Firstly, the discreet economical sip (as practised at weddings - when there's some doubt as to whether or not there's going to be a refill). Then there's the "go for it" method, taking a large un-English mouthful and gulping it down. Or filling one cheek and squirting it from side to side.. Or, as in a personal fantasy of mine, filling a washing up bowl with champagne and going face-down in it! (one of these days!) The possibilities were endless.. This was another one of those "I could get used to this" moments. The perfect drink on a warm summer's evening.

I remember once overhearing a couple of women re-stocking the drinks shelves at a supermarket in England. One said to the other, "What do you think of champagne..?" to which her friend replied, "Well, it's only glorified apple juice innit.." I must be honest: years ago I never used to be that struck on it because my experience of it was limited to sipping it warm at wedding receptions.

If, for some reason, I had to be limited to only one drink for the rest of my life, it would be champagne. I just wish I could afford to indulge in a bottle* every day as Winston Churchill is reputed to have done.

* Winston's favourite was Pol Roger.

Other champagne-related quotes - but who said 'em? (Answers below)

1. Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

2. In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.

3. There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.

4. Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.

5. Champagne's funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's a heavy mist before my eyes.

6. My only regret is that I did not drink more Champagne.

7. I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate . . . and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself.

8. The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love is like being enlivened with Champagne.

9. In success you deserve it, and in defeat you need it.

10. I'm only a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaller. I don't like beer.

Finally: how not to open a bottle of champagne:

Although why not!! Now where did I put that washing up bowl..?

1. Dorothy Parker
2. Napoleon
3. Bette Davis (from the movie Old Acquaintance)
4. Madame De Pompadour
5. James Stewart (from the movie The Philadelphia Story)
6. Lord Maynard Keynes, on his deathbed
7. Napoleon Bonaparte
8. Samuel Johnson
9. Winston Churchill (sounds like no 2 to me!)
10. George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

34. Jura service

/contd. The next day we finished the long drive to Dôle, in Jura, where Tante S & Oncle M lived and checked into a nearby hotel. The celebration kicked off at midday on the following day at the local church where we met up with all their family, relatives & friends. This being the first time I'd met them all, the introductions took a while. Afterwards there was a vin d'honneur.. following which we all set off to where the lunch was being served at a hall in a park high up overlooking the town.

A great L-shaped table had been set up in the hall with M and S sitting at the corner angle while all the other places were seated by age order.. "Oldest on the right, youngest on the left.." I think there were about 50-60 of us. M knew his wines and he told me he'd been saving up his best bottles for this occasion. One of the wines that was new to me was a wonderful vin jaune (yellow wine) from Arbois, a neighbouring town. As each course was demolished, the next one was brought in by the traiteur. I don't think there's a direct equivalent in the UK for a traiteur - perhaps an upmarket caterer. Traiteurs provide fine food for meetings, weddings, receptions, etc.

We were sat next to Madame's cousins from Belfort (in eastern France) whom she hadn't seen for years. As the wine disappeared, the jokes, the singing and the dancing started.. I think I must have danced with every female member of the family.. Unfortunately I can no longer recall what we ate - except that it was all superb. The wines too were memorable - the taste of the Graves lingered long in the memory. With the coffee, unlabelled bottles of rocket fuel appeared from under the table and were passed around. At 5pm, we ground to a halt and we all got up to go for a short walk around the park before reconvening back in the hall for Part 2 at around 6pm...!! (Only in France!)

It all started again - except this time it was dinner! I seem to remember saying to Madame at about 11pm that perhaps we should be heading back to the hotel soon. Being France, you just can't get up and leave - we went round everybody (repeat handshakes & kissing) to say au revoir before finally driving (yes I know!) back to the hotel.. By this stage we'd been eating and drinking more or less continuously since midday and we were more than ready for bed.

When we arrived at the hotel there wasn't a light to be seen. I tried the front door only to find it was locked. Ringing the bell proved fruitless. There was a phone box across the road but again, no response.. So we got back in the car and drove to S's house where we parked on her drive and, putting the seats back, we fell quickly into an instant coma.

Some time after 1.30am, we were awoken by the sound of returning cars. After explaining to all and sundry what had happened, S said that one of the neighbours had a spare room all prepared in the event of an emergency overspill.. We drove around the corner to the house of S's friend where we parked outside and went into the house through the basement garage before tip-toeing up to the bedroom earmarked for waifs and strays on the ground floor.

The next morning I woke up with an urgent need to see a man about a dog.. Madame was vehement in her demand that I shouldn't as she was convinced that I'd wake up the family but after a short passage of time I persuaded her that it would be in all our interests if I went..!

I stood there in the bathroom with one of my Dad's wartime expressions running through my mind: M for sema, N for mation, O for the garden wall before getting to P for relief..* Opening the door quietly I crept out only to find a lady standing there looking at me.. with a quizzical expression.

Using the complete gamut (at the time) of my French language skills, I ventured a "Bonjour madame!" Hearing that, Madame sprang out of bed and took over.. (phew!) The lady and her husband had seen a car with a GB plate outside and put deux and deux together.. She'd been shushing her husband too in case he woke us up so it was fortunate I broke the circle.. He'd been out and bought fresh croissants too.

We had breakfast and before long we were chatting like old friends.. they were a charming couple. It was a bizarre experience though to wake up in a strange house with no idea who our hosts were.

* The other letters go like this: A for Horses, B for dinner, C for miles, D for ential, E for brick, F for vescence, G for police, H before beauty, I for nate, J for dollar to spare, K for teria, L for leather, M for sema, N for mation, O for the garden wall, P for relief, Q for hours, R for Bitter, S we have no bananas, T for two, U for mism, V for La France, W for a bob, X for breakfast, Y for mistress and Z for the doctor..
Answer to November's quiz - What was it that Audrey Hepburn could have done all night, and still have begged for more..?
While most of you got the correct answer - which was of course "danced" - there were one or two colourful suggestions that I won't repeat here. But thanks anyway!