Friday, 31 December 2010

104. New Year's Eve aka St Sylvestre

31st December 2010. Phew..! We've been taking a break from the pleasures of the Christmas table since our visitors left on Tuesday. A whole slew of rich vittles have flowed under the bridge since I was last here in Blogistan but now we're closing the lock gates for a few days (after tonight!).

Last Monday we took our visitors to San Sebastian - they'd not been there before and they were both impressed by its style and the splendour of its baroque architecture. The weather was also favourable - think it was around 14-15°C and sunny.
After taking in a few of the grand boulevards and a stroll along the sea front of La Concha we went to the old part of town to - no prizes for guessing - Aralar (our fave!) for a few pintxos and a humungous sangria.

We were in St Jean de Luz a couple of days ago and the temperature was an almost sultry 21°C! We sat outside and enjoyed a drink in the sunshine.

Yesterday we had a phone call from Madame D from our old gite in Villefranque where we stayed for 5 months in 2007/8 when we first arrived.. She's kindly invited us for lunch this Sunday. Who says the Basques keep to themselves..?

Now all that remains is the question of finding a suitable New Year's resolution.. hmm.

1st January 2011. Happy New Year to all.. If you find yourself sitting in front of your computer today feeling just a tad jaded.. then here's something to take your mind off it for a few minutes. Often copied, never equalled - it's that memorable car chase from "Bullitt", featuring the late Steve McQueen. And if you tell me the downhill sequences don't have you hanging on to your desktop - I'm sorry, I simply won't believe you! Enjoy! (but don't blame me if you spill your Horlicks!) Edited to add: I've just read that Peter Yates has died..
Question du Jour: how many times does that green VW Beetle get overtaken..?

Django Reinhardt demonstrates his complete mastery of the Manouche guitar here aided by Stephane Grapelli on the violin:
The streets of Bayonne were almost entirely devoid of cars and passersby this New Year's morning when I wandered into the unusually quiet centre to find a baker who was open for business. All the usual suspects were closed so I started looking for someone, anyone, carrying a baguette. Among those like me in search of a baguette were a handful of hollow-eyed, rubber-legged revellers searching for that last elusive drink for lurching off home to bed. Spotting an old gentleman with a Basque beret with a baguette emerging from a side street, I found the only baker in town that was open.

There was a long queue - an uneasy mix of early birds and party animals - that stretched outside the shop and straggled across the pavement to the river's edge. Events took a comical turn for the worse when 2 young lads - who were almost "completely relaxed" - decided to provide an impromptu cabaret by joining the queue not at the end but at some point near the front. This provoked a masterclass in righteous indignation from various quarters and it wasn't long before voices were raised and fingers were being wagged. They were all still arguing as I picked up my bread and headed off for home. Happy New Year!

One of the shops we visit over the border in Spain has started stocking the Balvenie "Doublewood" 12 year old. What can I say except I'm tempted..! If you appreciate single malt whiskies but haven't tried this one I'd say it's never too late. To me it's right up there with the very best.
Here's an enigmatic clip that's capable of many interpretations.. what would yours be?
5th January 2011. Very sad news about Gerry Rafferty this morning. His timeless 1978 hit "Baker Street" encapsulated his experience of life in London - with that unforgettable soaring sax from Raphael Ravenscroft running through it... RIP Gerry.
6th January 2011. Back out on the river in a coxless quad sculler this evening - there was a warm southerly wind blowing down the river and a glorious sunset. Had to remind ourselves that today was 6th January! Did 10km before dusk. (Running total = 343km) 

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

103. AVE trains

21st December 2010. It was announced during Télé Matin (France2's breakfast TV) this morning that Spain has become the European leader in high speed train technology. With the opening of the Madrid - Valencia line last Saturday, Spain's AVE High Speed Rail network now operates over 2,000km of track compared to ~1900km of TGV in France and Spain's high speed rail network is set to grow further in order to meet the target of ensuring that all major cities in Spain are no more than 4hrs from Madrid. This clip (apologies for the 'iffy' quality) shows the space age looking RENFE AVE train..

And another one:

Meanwhile, here in SW France, there is much, much, much local opposition to the further extension southwards of the French LGV (Ligne Grande Vitesse - high speed track) through the politically sensitive Pays Basque. It is planned to be completed by 2020 but a lot can happen in the intervening years. I've noted elsewhere that the Basques have an almost visceral attachment to their houses, farms, land and their 'Pays' and I don't think that the central planners in Paris have quite hoisted this fact on board. It's my guess that future opposition will take a more concrete form. The debate is far from being over.

The long term strategic vision is clearly to put in place a high speed rail network that will straddle Europe and link up all the major capitals. A laudable enough ambition you might think. However, the southern extension of the LGV through the Pays Basque will generate even greater opposition than we've seen so far. Looking at it from the point of view of those directly concerned, ask yourself the question - how will this new line benefit them? Are these the sort of people for whom a shorter rail journey to Paris is a boon?

I'm reminded of the story of the contribution to an egg and bacon breakfast from the point of view of the chicken and the pig. By providing an egg, the chicken has an interest but in providing the bacon, the pig is committed. In the case of the Pays Basque, we stand to lose far more than we'll gain.

As far as I can see, while the spread of LGVs across the map of Europe might convince our elected representatives in Paris and beyond that they are achieving something and that they are doing us a favour, the reality is that no-one here wants what they're offering. Opening up this blessed corner of France to mass tourism is not something the people here need or want. The new line will cause local property values to take yet another upward hike thus making it virtually impossible for locals to keep a foothold in their patrimoine. It's estimated that 1300 homes will be touched by the LGV. Unfortunately though, in matters like this, it's usually the "big battalions" that win the day. If anyone needs a reminder of the ties that bind the Basques to their homes, take a look at this poem by Gabriel Aresti that I featured in an earlier post.

To see the scale of the problem, here's a short clip that illustrates all too clearly the impact of the proposed new line on the tightly packed coastal belt of the Pays Basque.
I despair of reading about high speed trains in the UK. Our politicians - of all colours and persuasions - are incapable of looking further ahead than next week and investing in long term infrastructure plus they seem to lack the political will, imagination, drive and competence to bring in a major project on this scale. So far, the only winners appear to be the plump legions of rail consultants who, for years, have been making a nice living out of advising successive British governments. All that's on the table at the moment is a nebulous project to join London and Birmingham with a high speed rail link but, yes, you've guessed it, the Transport Minister has his long screwdriver out and is fiddling around the edges with the routing. The history of high speed trains in the UK makes for sorry reading. How many decades are we behind? Our current main line express trains (built 20 years ago) have been re-branded as InterCity 225.. the "225" element being its top speed in kph.. which is intended to sound faster to the long-suffering travelling public than 140mph. I know from bitter experience that trying to drink coffee on an InterCity train whilst dressed for a business meeting is not to be recommended. In contrast, the TGV is rock steady at 300kph - or 186mph - whichever you prefer. And just to drive the point home, the TGV entered service between Paris and Lyon in 1981.

PS Still no snow! Yippee! And the forecast for tomorrow (22nd) is for - you're not going to believe this - 17C!

23rd December 2010. I went to Cazenave in the centre of Bayonne yesterday afternoon for one last item for Madame's Christmas stocking.. I've mentioned Cazenave before here but each time I step over the threshold and enter what can only be described as a Temple of Chocolat I'm stopped dead in my tracks by my olfactory sensors going straight to Red Alert..! The intensity of the rich and all-pervading aroma of chocolate is astonishing. Normally, the shop is staffed by one or perhaps two ladies. Yesterday I counted five.

At Cazenave, they make their own chocolate - from cocoa beans to the finished product. The window is decorated with beautifully made items in chocolate ranging from simple castanets to sculpted boxes - made of chocolate - for filling with chocolates. If it's a box of chocolates you want, they have a range of empty boxes on display from which you select the size you want and then your assistant will fill it with the individual chocolates that you select from the range on display.

Yesterday I was there to buy a box of Marrons glacés. Once the assistant had finished filling the box she weighed it (having first weighed the empty box!) and wrote the price down for me to take to the cash desk while she automatically gift-wrapped the box. While I was paying, the charming lady at the cash desk offered me a dish of dark chocolate pastilles. I once hit the jackpot with Madame with some plain chocolate-covered Marrons glacés I'd bought in Italy but I've given up trying to find some here in France. I found an online supplier in Spain but they wanted 35€ just to post them here..
I'm reminded of one of Woody Allen's old stories. He was telling a friend that he had a new job down at the local strip club.

His friend asked, "How much a week..?"

Woody replied, "Two hunnerd bucks.."

His friend commented, "That ain't much.."

Woody sighed, "It's all I could afford..!"

I almost told that story to the lady on the cash desk in the context of a woman working at Cazenave but I decided against it - there's nothing worse than a blank look. My ability to tell a story in French isn't up to it.

I must brush up my Ferrero Rocher pyramid building skills.. the centrepiece of all diplomatic receptions... apparently (!)


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

102. The Big Chill

15th December 2010. A bright and cold day today - blue skies, dazzling sunshine, c-o-l-d but luckily no wind... The temperature out there this morning was a bracing -3°C. I took the dog for a long walk along the river and came back via the Christmas market - the stallholders looked frozen. I had a squint at what they were selling and I must be honest - there was nothing there that made me even want to slow down, let alone insert a hand in a back pocket.

At midday it had warmed up to a balmy +1. I think we could be in for a dose of snow tomorrow.

18th December 2010. The last few days have seen us in a bit of a frenzy of activity getting ready for Christmas. Presents have been retrieved from hiding places to be wrapped; we've put up one of those Christmas trees that's guaranteed (?) not to drop its needles and last night Madame worked her customary magic on the house with a profusion of decorations that appeared miraculously from dusty storage containers. Not much left to do now. I think one last raid into Spain for some last minute shopping is planned for next Tuesday. Beautiful weather this morning in the Pays Basque - cold, yes but with blue skies, bright sunshine and no wind.

Spare a thought for those who will be having Christmas on their own. I can't think of much that's worse than that.

Last night we enjoyed our first taste of Christmas Pudding.. Madame made several earlier in the year and they've been lurking down in the cellar ever since. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas Pudding - known here as Plum Pudding (a bit odd as there are no plums in it) - is the taste of Christmas. (Half fat version here) I'm convinced Rabbie Burns' most famous verse was originally written about a Christmas Pudding.. but he was later persuaded to change the target to a Haggis!
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Best wishes for a Happy Christmas to all..
20th December 2010. Still no snow here.. touch wood! Some old friends of Madame's (from uni days) are arriving later in the week by TGV. TGV services have been affected by the wintry weather - they're running at reduced speed (~200kph) in the north. 

Sunday, 5 December 2010

101. Back in the saddle

4th December 2010. Finally, a dry day.. and sunny too. Despite it being only 2°C this morning, I decided to get down to the club for an outing. I've just looked back and the last time I was out on the river was 13th November.. it having rained every single day since then. This morning we went out in a coxless quad sculler and did a relatively painless 12km (Running total 333km). I say 'relatively' because with not having rowed for 3 weeks or so my hands had softened up - so I'm now sat here with fresh new blisters.. With it being the first Saturday of the month, it was time for an apéro at the club after the outing.. As Basil Fawlty might have said, I mentioned France's crushing defeat last week at the hands of Australia once but I think I got away with it! 

Walked along the sea front at Biarritz this afternoon and around town. Christmas shopping seems to have clicked into top gear at last.

6th December 2010. It's 16°C here this morning and forecast to rise this afternoon to an unseasonable 19°C.. warmest in France. Bizarre weather. Meanwhile, up in the north, Cherbourg suffered badly from unprecedented flooding yesterday as a result of melting snow combined with a high tide.
We took the dog for a long walk through town and out along the Nive as it was a warm afternoon.

7th December 2010. It was reported on the TF1 news last night that the temperature at St Jean de Luz yesterday reached..... 22°C! 

Spent the afternoon in the garden taking down a hefty cypress tree that had got out of control. I've now got a stack of logs that I'm hoping someone down at the club can use. 

8th December 2010. We went to Dancharia in Spain this morning - just across the border from the lovely Basque village of Ainhoa, reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in France. I wouldn't argue with that. Dancharia is known for the numerous Ventas that are located there - Venta Peio is our favourite.. and with Christmas in mind we stocked up on drinks. As an example, a 2 litre bottle of Sir Edward's Scotch (made from 100% Scottish grapes*) was a tad over 16€.. (about £13.80 at today's rates). And contrary to the report in the above link, I don't find it a "rough and ready mixture" at all. I guarantee the writer of the above review couldn't identify it in a blind tasting with other blended whiskies.  The car indicated that it was a balmy 22°C on the way home.. Meanwhile the rest of France shivers. As does the UK.

* I jest!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. It's impossible to imagine how he would have lived through the intervening years.. what new personas he would have lived out, what causes he would have espoused, what great new music he would have made. More here, herehere and here. RIP John.

9th December 2010. Stop Press: I bought a cheapo (17€ something for a litre - I should have known better) single malt whisky while in Spain yesterday - it was a new offering from Glen Grant called The Major's Reserve. To be honest, that's where it should be stayed - in reserve.. There's more than a faint whiff of varnish in the aftertaste - but, being charitable, that could just be me. Whisky preference is a matter of personal taste and we all have our favourites. Single malt whiskies invariably reward the drinker with a range of subtle and complex tastes and they benefit from being aged in the cask for 10 years or more for these flavours to develop. In the case of The Major's Reserve I sense that the distillery has cut corners on the aging process. I read somewhere on the internet that The Major's Reserve is 7 years old. Years ago I had a 5 year old Glen Grant (yes, another cheapo sold on the Continent) and it was exactly the same. By the way, there's no indication on the label of how old this product is which in itself should have rung warning bells. Don't say I didn't tell you..

Pray silence for The Balvenie
Nectar of the gods
I should have paid the extra and bought my usual favourite malt whisky - Glenmorangie. The other one I'm very partial to is the 12 year old Balvenie.. (hope Father Christmas is reading this!) but the Ventas in Spain don't seem to stock it. If you tried whisky once, and didn't like it; or if you've been drinking normal whisky all your life; or if you'd like to try a malt whisky but don't know enough about it to know what to ask for - the next time the person who usually buys you a present asks, "What would you like for Christmas, your birthday or whatever.." - don't answer suspiciously quickly - ponder a moment before replying either a bottle of Glenmorangie or Balvenie.. You'll thank me for this!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

100. Allegiances

28th November 2010. Gawd, 100 posts.. I really should get out more..

I see from studying the local weather data (trying to find out when this monsoon we seemed to be locked into is going to end) that the visible moon phase in Bayonne today is Waning Gibbous - which, if I were into howling at the moon, has a nice ring to it and could easily set me off. However, if you don't know what Waning Gibbous means, come and see me afterwards. (let me put you out of your misery - here) Waning Gibbous could easily be an American Country & Western singer as well!

Just to stop us from getting bored, this morning we were treated to hail - in addition to the more usual rain. Is there no end in sight..?

Now, rugby.. ah yes. Last night France were surprisingly hammered by the Wallabies 16-59 (and that's no misprint). I don't think I've ever seen such a one-sided points avalanche in such a short time involving two of the best sides in the world - in the second half the Aussies scored 46 points in 30 minutes (to France's 3). I started thinking this morning about who I support - as, I have to confess, last night I was supporting - wait for it - Australia. Friends in England have previously made jokey comments to the effect that, since moving here, I must surely now be supporting France - but that's not the case. My answer to them? Moving across the Channel hasn't changed a thing..

This is how it works:

When England play, I support them irrespective of who they're playing.
  • When the other home nations play each other - I'd support Ireland first, with Scotland an extremely close second. 
  • When any of the home nations (Wales, Scotland, Ireland) play a non-UK nation, I want them to win. Except for a France-Wales fixture - in which case I might support France (but doubtful).
  • I support France against any northern hemisphere non-UK nation.
  • Now introduce the southern hemisphere.. I'd support any northern hemisphere nation (except France) against any southern hemisphere nation
  • Southern hemisphere nations playing each other? I'd support Argentina if they're playing - otherwise I couldn't give a toss.
In the event that I can't decide who to support, then I usually support whoever plays the most attractive rugby with the fewest fouls. Foul play automatically swings my allegiance to the sinned against team. I must confess that I've never been able to warm to the All Blacks. Look at the haka on YouTube from 20-30 years ago and it was just a bit of harmless folklore. Now? It's been "improved" upon such that it embarrasses me to watch a serious rugby nation like NZ having to resort to the haka as a psychological weapon.. something that their opponents are supposed to "respect" it.. Give me a break! It's laughable. I think their opponents should ignore all this hokum.. and simply continue with their warm-up, read a newspaper, have a burger or whatever.       

Complicated this armchair sport isn't it..?!

29th November 2010. Finally, at last, am I dreaming..? Blue skies are back today - but according to the forecast we're set for 3 days of rain again as of tomorrow. As it was finally dry, I took the dog for a long run along the beach at Anglet as he's been more or less housebound for the last few weeks. On the way home I saw that the Pyrenees - which form a backdrop to Bayonne - were covered in snow..
I read this article today about the precarious financial situation in some parts of the Eurozone.. I wish I could say that I understood it all (or even half of it) - but I don't. For countries to take part in monetary union they had to satisfy economic convergence criteria - public sector borrowing, budget deficit, inflation, interest rates and much more had to be held within agreed limits. I always thought that these were only the technical financial deal-breakers. How about the efficiency and productivity of the underlying economy? Here's a prescient quote taken from a very readable article written in 1997 by the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements:

There is a widespread belief in the economics profession that nominal convergence - as expressed by the convergence criteria - is less important for a successful monetary union than real convergence. Real convergence encompasses factors such as labour mobility, price and wage flexibility, exposure towards external shocks, industrial structures, and so on. Judged by these factors, convergence among future members of the EMU still has a long way to go. This is important because to be successful a European monetary policy depends exactly on these factors. Without a high degree of real convergence, monetary policy is bound to have different effects in different parts of the monetary union. The very idea of a single European monetary policy would thus become unrealistic. The ECB would come under political pressure to accommodate mutually incompatible wishes from different parts of the monetary union. The result could only be a less than optimal monetary policy and rising inflation and interest rates.

For purely selfish reasons (pensions paid in £££s), I'd welcome a return to the former European currencies - the D-mark, the franc, the guilder, the peseta et al.. When we arrived in France in September 2007, a £1 was worth a worthwhile 1.48€. Just a few short months later, the rate had plummeted to around 1.03€, which equates to a fall in value of 31% (ouch!). It now stands at 1.18€ - which is a 21% fall since September 2007 (OK, a slightly lesser ouch! but still painful). If the French franc were to be re-introduced and the £ returned to its former trading position against it - somewhere near £1 = ~10Ffrs then I for one would be delighted. I'm not holding my breath though about the possible demise of the euro and a return to those old currencies - I think there's too much political capital invested in the Euro for it to fail. If it does though, I think the first country in the eurozone to display any cracks from the strain of supporting other less efficient economies would be Germany.

Wouldn't you agree though - just purely on the look of the former currency - that a 50 franc note featuring Racine:
or a 10 franc note with Voltaire:
is far more stylish than this anonymous and utilitarian 50€ note (worthy of East Germany):
As Del Boy might have put it: "Je reste ma valise.."
1st December 2010. Back to rain again this morning. It's preferable to snow which is what much of the rest of the country has to contend with but I'm starting to get a bit fed up with it now.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

99. Wet wet wet

22nd November 2010. More rain today. There's a tale of living in Italy in the paper today.. This classic anecdote caught my eye:

"Daniela and I were reporting the theft of her handbag at the local police station when the officer hunched over his old Olivetti asked if he could change the time of the crime to 10.40 pm rather than 10.30 because the number three key wasn’t working on his typewriter."

23rd November 2010. Yet more rain. Went to the local hairdressers where I combine a 6 weekly haircut with the opportunity to mangle the French language with A****y! Still raining when I came out..

24th November 2010. And yet more wet stuff.

I'm not much interested in pop music but every now and again I hear something on the radio that I realise has been haunting me for a decade (or three) and after a spot of inspired Googling, I usually find it. This 1980 track by the Korgis is a prime example:
I once read that our musical tastes are set to whatever was a hit when we were 17.. So think back to what was around musically when you were 17 and tell me I'm wrong. Early Beatles does it for me - that's all I'm saying!
25th November 2010. Thunder & shivering pooch & more rain during the night..

Lunch or dinner (or both!) at the Tour d'Argent in Paris with its unsurpassable views has long been an ambition for us. Duck is the speciality there and they have a legendary wine cellar. I spotted the following clip in today's Guardian to give you a taste.. (might be the closest I'll ever get!)
More information about La Tour d'Argent here.. but the description of how the famous caneton is prepared might put you off. It refers to the method of killing as strangulation - which implies a slow death - as opposed to the traditional wringing its neck method which I believe to be instantaneous.

Not somewhere I'd have chosen to dine alone either.. but I suppose that comes with the territory when you're a food critic (and your expenses will only cover a solo dinner). Also, I'm sufficiently 'Old School' to have worn a tie. I'm no fuddy-duddy but out of respect for my environment I would have worn one. I'm surprised that the maitre d' didn't lend him one - but then, we're talking about a Guardian journalist ..!

I'd not heard of Dehillerin, the kitchen supplier that he mentions early in the clip.. we normally come here to look at kitchen paraphernalia.  

(PS. I'll be glad when someone can make a film about Paris/France without an accordion in the background..)

There was an interesting story on the TF1 TV news this lunchtime that caught my eye about an Auberge-Relais - Pitaval - near Lyon (specialising in duck and foie gras) that offers courses in foie gras, duck and chocolate. Now - be honest - doesn't this clip make your mouth water..? 
 If only it was a bit closer..

This is very apt for today.. too wet to go out..
Another deluge as we speak.. torrential rain audible through the double glazing. And I can't believe Christmas is only one month away. Happy Thanksgiving to any American readers..!

26th November 2010. Last night was enlivened by the sound of rain again.. at one point it sounded as if the house was moving slowly through a car wash.. (I know - "Good for the garden") It's crystal clear why lawns flourish in the UK - it has a mild climate, free from excessively scorching summers or seasonal deluges of rain that respectively burn the grass and then drown it. Just a gentle summer heat and a constant sprinkling of rain throughout the year to encourage its steady growth. I'm reminded of the apocryphal story of a visitor at Hampton Court who asked the gardener there the secret of the velvet lawns. He replied, "Roll it and cut it... roll it and cut it. For 400 years."

I've been able to get out of the house with the dawg in between rain showers but while the sky's black I look at a few other blogs (confessions of a sad owld git!) and there's a phrase that repeats itself across several of them.. namely "How to survive in France" - as though living in a Western European country equates somehow to living in the Mato Grosso or a time-share in Somalia, North Yemen or Baghdad. A day's travel from the nearest Waitrose.. eek! 

27th November 2010. No prizes for guessing what the weather is doing this morning.. yes, it's another downpour. That means no rowing for me. If it starts to rain during an outing - OK - but to go out in a deluge means a couple of hours of rowing soaking wet which, believe me, is less than fun.

Today sees the last of all but one of the autumn rugby internationals. If, as seems likely, they're played in wet conditions, we aren't going to see much in the way of running rugby with ball in hand. It starts this afternoon with Italy v Fiji, followed by England's heavyweight clash with the Springboks, then Scotland will be looking to continue their winning form against Samoa, then a huge game for a struggling Wales v the seemingly unstoppable All Blacks before finishing up this evening with France v Australia - a game in which Australia will definitely want to re-discover their form. Ireland face Argentina tomorrow.

This wet weather has had me blowing the dust off some old CDs. Mark Knopfler at his best here:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

98. View from the grassy knoll..

20th November 2010. Brace yourself for another update to the saga of my long-suffering lawn.. The far third of the lawn was looking pretty sorry for itself after the long hot dry summer (complete with hosepipe ban) so a few weeks ago I raked all the dead grass out, tugged out some more entangled roots that had infiltrated from nearby bushes and trees before spreading some fertiliser and then fresh soil on top. I raked it all level and let it stand so it could settle a little before starting Phase 2.

Maybe I'm doing something wrong but the only visible result from my repeated attempts at re-seeding has been the newly corpulent appearance of the local blackbird and starling population. They gather in the trees for 'sticky seconds' during each re-seeding effort before landing with a thump on the lawn the moment I've finished! I had to resort to putting a net over the newly seeded parts of the lawn but each time the resultant growth of new grass was short-lived.. the new grass would grow, appear to thrive for a while and then thin out and die off. (suggestions welcomed)

Yesterday, things moved up a gear and got serious. I went out and bought some rolls of turf. I imagine even our starlings would find it hard to abscond with a roll. I was surprised at how easy it was to lay and it all looks pretty impressive. For now...

I'll report back in a while. 

Another rugby fest today.. Wales struggled to find their stride against the big-hitting Fijians last night and that match finished a draw: 16-16. Other matches today: Australia (surprisingly beaten by Munster mid week) are in Italy; Scotland look to be in for a bruising encounter with the Springboks; a rejuvenated England will be looking to build on their performance of last week against the Wallabies when they face another impact team from the South Pacific - Samoa; Ireland take on the All Blacks and finally, France confront the Pumas (Argentina) - their bête noire - the Pumas having won 7 out of the last 10 encounters.

Living in France - yet another difference (part of an occasional series!) In the UK, greeting card shops are omnipresent and there are cards for just about every occasion you can think of - and some would say there are too many. In recent years in the UK, cards started appearing to celebrate occasions that I for one had no idea what they were about. Hannukah, Diwali and others.. Now, we have Happy Winter Holiday.. the mere reporting of which is guaranteed to turn the readership of the Daily Mail apoplectic..!

All that confusion has come to an end here.. Card shops - a High Street staple in the UK - are thin on the ground in France. Christmas cards are rarely if ever sent - in France, it's more customary to send New Year cards instead. And while we're on the subject, finding a birthday card that says more than Bon Anniversaire ain't easy either. 

Thought for the Day: There's been a drastic decline in the world's bee population over the last 5 years and scientists are at a loss to explain it. Increased use of pesticides, mobile phones or mites fron South East Asia are all possible factors. This has the potential to pose more of a threat to the continuance of life on Planet Earth as we know it than the global warming scenario. This is worth reading up on...

As a fully signed-up member of the Cheese Appreciation Society (Gannet Section), I've often thought it would be something to try to have a multi-course meal composed entirely of progressively stronger or more pungent cheeses, with your bread of choice and accompanied by a suitable wine in each case. The first course could be a selection of fairly mild cheeses - for me, I'd pick an unpasteurised ripe Brie de Meaux, to be served by attendants from the Confrérie des Compagnons du Brie de Meaux.. I'd be looking for a cool Bourgueil to drink with this (others may differ!). 
Brie de Meaux
For my main course (assuming we're being health-conscious and only having 3 courses!), I think I'd want a blue cheese such as a nice creamy Roquefort (mixed with a knob of butter).. and perhaps with this I'd be opening a Haut Medoc despite what the recommendations are here..
Assuming I'd make it this far, I'd want to finish face down blowing bubbles in - no prizes for guessing! - a ripe Vacherin Mont d'Or.. and/or a runny Camembert with either (or both!) a Pessac-Léognan or a Saint-Julien in attendance.. A good Madiran would also do the cheese justice.
Mont d'Or
After I'd wiped the crumbs from around my chops, a Greek coffee (Eng trans) would re-invigorate the system before the knock-out blow of a Marc d'Irouleguy - guaranteed to set your eyeballs contra-rotating..

It would then be time for a brisk pull-through of my main arteries with a Dyno-Rod followed by a quick half hour in an oxygen tent..! Then home for tea and medals..

What do you think... brilliant idea or what..?!

Thinking about it, if the idea was carried through among say 6-8 French people around the table, the process of obtaining a consensus for the selection of each cheese with a matching wine would be problematic.. and that's being tactful! Imagine trying to agree one or two cheeses and wines per course that would meet with general approval. Exactly! Notwithstanding that though, I'd still like to try it.. Madame could be persuaded I'm sure..

21st November 2010. In the Autumn rugby internationals, congratulations are due to the Scots, captained by Rory Lawson, for a superb win over the world champions South Africa yesterday. It wasn't the prettiest of games played as it was in sweeping rain which led to handling errors on both sides. But - it was there to be won and fortunately Scotland seized their opportunity. As unexpected as it was welcome, it will give them a mighty boost in confidence. And Rory's grandfather* would have been tickled pink by this performance! Here's tae ye, Scotland! Well done lads!
* The legendary Bill McLaren..
The other results were more predictable: AustraliaEngland, New Zealand & France (mangled English translation here) all won against Italy, Samoa, Ireland and Argentina respectively.

Have you noticed that reporting of Icelandic volcanic eruptions has reduced to zero..? Wonder what's happening up there..? Here's a powerful reminder of Nature at work - you might have to wait for the images to load or, if you're in a hurry, click on the image to see the animation:

Stop Press: Curious story.. We'll be hearing next that his shelves of smoked & strangely mellow duck have been stripped bare!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

97. First signs of Christmas

15th November 2010. Another addition to my "What makes life worth living" list..
It was a beautiful sunny morning today so I walked the pooch down into town and along the river bank only to find the Christmas lights being erected.. and all the chalets in front of the Hotel de Ville are in place ready for the Christmas market.. Christmas has come up quickly this year..

Madame has said she will make a Christmas pudding this year. I must be honest, she made one once in England and it was right up there with one of my dear old Mum's (the benchmark).. A good Christmas pud is the true taste of Christmas to your correspondent. When I was a kid, my father would drench the steaming pudding with whisky or brandy which he'd then try to ignite - with varying degrees of success. Not so long ago I read that the thing to do is to pre-heat the spirits before pouring over the pudding.. and then all it takes is one match to set the whole thing alight.. This works spectacularly well!

The other day we booked a holiday in Andalusia for next Spring - something to take our minds off the wet weather we're currently stuck with..
18th November 2010. Meanwhile,  life goes on - despite the frequent rain showers that have been sweeping in from the Bay of Biscay for the last week. Normalement there's something that catches my eye every day but it's rare that I have a camera to hand. The other day was an exception however when I spotted this sign on a gate..

For all you Francophiles out there, you'll be pleased to hear that London now has its very own French radio station.. I know it's been tried before but that was during the war and it wasn't for purposes of entertainment. It's worth looking at the link above - not least so that you may wince at the bluntness of some of the questions (how former President Giscard d'Estaing retained his composure I'll never know).

No, this new French radio in London is completely different and long overdue. I'd like to think that it might help to dispel the fog that traditionally obscures the view of the opposite side of the Channel - but I'm not holding my breath! 

Friday, 12 November 2010

96. Distant snow

11th November 2010. Now that the monsoon of the last 3-4 days appears to have blown itself out, we decided to nip across the border to Irun this morning for some shopping.. On the return journey, I was looking across at the Pyrenees and through a gap in the nearest hills I could see through to some more distant ones. To my surprise, the sun was shining like a spotlight through a break in the cloud onto a snow-covered peak..   

Question du Jour: What's Velcro® known as in French..? (Answer at foot of post) (and no - it's not Velcreau..!)

Cheese - good or bad for you? An article in the New York Times sparked off this report from a US TV channel that attempts to link excessive cheese consumption with obesity and to score a political point in so doing. According to these figures (below), Greece is the top of the heap with France second. Yet strangely enough, contrary to the conclusion that might be drawn from the US report, neither Greece nor France are awash with wobbling blimps. In fact, it's a very rare event to see anyone overweight - let alone obese - waddling through the streets here in France. And - this will get me into trouble but it's true - those I have seen have usually had English accents.
I think obesity is less to do with 'excessive' cheese consumption and everything to do with a sedentary 'couch-potato' lifestyle, over-sized portions, snacking between meals and an excessive intake of processed foods high in additives such as sugars and salt - but then I'm not a doctor.

And so to Woody Allen - here he is with his thoughts on what makes life worth living (from "Manhattan")..
I like the moment in this scene (at 02:23) when the penny finally drops with him.. (been there..)

What would be on your list? Your answers welcomed.

12th November 2010. I found this clip on YouTube of the sea at Biarritz today..
13th November 2010. Last Saturday morning, the river was the lowest I've ever seen it and we had rain showers - just to stop us getting bored..! I usually row on Saturday mornings and Tuesday & Thursday evenings. Last Tuesday, the Pays Basque was being lashed by continuous rain and Thursday was a national holiday (Armistice Day) so today was my first outing for a week. It was the opposite of last Saturday.. it was warm - I'm guessing 16°C - under a burning blue cloudless sky, the river was full to the brim and static - it must have been high tide. We did 13km in a coxless quad sculler. (running total = 321km)

To St Jean de Luz this afternoon - the car was registering 23.5°C (74°F) and it was like a summer's day down there - people on the beach, swimmers, surfers, people messing about in boats, queues for ice creams (!)..

I've been thinking about the Woody Allen question and one item that would definitely make my list of things that make life worth living (apart from my dearly beloved, natch!) is a Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese.. Known as Vacherin Mont d'Or in Switzerland or Mont d'Or in France, it's a seasonal cheese normally only available in the winter months.
A Mont d'Or cheese (the French version)
Baked Vacherin
There are also many recipes for baked Vacherin (I've not tried it baked).. and this one looks interesting.. What to drink with it..? This cheese can take a big wine and, personally, I'd earmark my best bottle of red for this cheese. (Something like a Pessac-Léognan or a Saint-Julien (this is an affordable one - but it would benefit from being laid down for a few years), or, if your taste leans more towards the Rhônes, a Gigondas or a Côte Rôtie) (It's once a year so don't worry about the price - you're a long time dead..) If Madame asks you what you'd like for Christmas, now you know! That is - if you haven't got one of these handy doo-hickeys on the right!

Highlight of the weekend? No question.. England vs Australia at Twickenham..
What a try by Ashton and what a terrific team performance! Roll on the Six Nations..

Answer: Scratch.