Sunday, 31 October 2010

93. ελληνικός καφές

31st October 2010.  I've been drinking Greek coffee for years and yes, I have to say that I'm hooked on a particular Greek Cypriot brand - Charalambous coffee (right). The problem with getting hooked on Greek or Turkish* coffee is that any other kind seems anaemic and insipid by comparison.
* I'll refer to it as Greek coffee throughout - hope this doesn't upset anyone - no offence intended.
When some friends from England visited us about a year ago, they were kind enough to bring me some much-needed packs of Charalambous. To my continuing surprise, despite trying every deli and coffee shop in the Pays Basque, I've been unable to find anyone here who stocks it or a similar product. And this in the land where you would expect shops to stock all manner of food items. If anyone reading this knows of a mail order supplier in France, please let me know via a comment at the end of this post.

Charalambous coffee is excellent and it has a rich taste with a hint of cardamom (I think) in there somewhere. It receives a 5* rating from me. However all good things come to an end and a few months ago I finally used up the last of my coffee stocks.

Last week, D, another kind friend in England, sent me some new supplies and all is now well again with the world - for the next few months at least! Loumidis Papagalos is a Greek brand (left) - and it has a slightly different taste to the Greek-Cypriot one. In looking for an image to copy, I discovered that Papagalos is available via the US Amazon site. I suspect it's been slightly de-tuned (unleaded?!) to suit the North American market - I don't think it has quite the same hit as Charalambous. I'll have to try adjusting the mix to see if I can squeeze that 130 octane aviation grade caffeine hit from it. By the way, if this post does whet your appetite for making Greek coffee yourself, don't forget to store your coffee in an airtight jar - similar to that in the clip below..

If there's anyone out there who would like to know how to make Greek coffee - then here's how. I thought the quickest & easiest way to explain it would be via YouTube.. but after a quick search for Greek coffee I was surprised at how long-winded some of the explanations were - some of these clips were 6-7 minutes long! Eventually I found someone who makes it almost the same way I do, even down to using an identical pan and the same Charalambous brand. If this is the first time you've made it, then I'd suggest using the following measures as a starting point and you can adjust for your own taste the next time. 

a "Bríki"
For one cup of coffee, measure a coffee cupful of cold water and pour into your coffee pan (or bríki). Add 2 heaped teaspoons of coffee and 2 of sugar (or 2 sweeteners). Stir enough to break up any clumps of floating coffee. This next part is subjective but the way I make it is to bring it slowly to the boil & remove from the heat just as it starts to bubble and rise - as in the vid. Pour and serve. Needless to say - obligatory Health & Safety warning follows! - you don't drink the grounds.. By the way, if anyone thinks their method is better, or have any suggestions - then please leave a comment..
Now - isn't that the best tasting cup of coffee you've ever had..?
1st November 2010. Cracked it.. all it needed was slightly more coffee in the mix and the result was a satisfying brew of Dr Loumidis' Patent Restorative Mixture.
And now for something completely different.. This is a representation of the workings of a 7 cylinder rotary aircraft engine of WW1 vintage. I can watch this for quite some time - admiring the elegance and simplicity of the crank arrangements and the way that the apparent motion of the pistons is converted to rotary motion - and all without a conventional crankshaft thrashing about.. (you might have to click on the image to see it moving)
2nd November 2010. A propos of nothing, I just thought of Saya, a great Thai restaurant I used to go to in Seattle.. If anyone in Seattle is reading this, or if you're planning to visit, I can't recommend this restaurant highly enough. What to order? Their Gai Yang is memorable.. If only they delivered!

And now, duly caffeined-up to the eyeballs, back to the Pays Basque..

Friday, 29 October 2010

92. Indian summer

Click to enlarge!
29th October 2010. Yesterday afternoon we drove down to St Jean de Luz - and according to the car, it was 23.5°C.. (74°F in old money) and the beach was crowded.. It was dazzlingly bright, even with sunglasses, and we had what will probably be the last ice-cream of the year from  Glaces Lopez.

They have a concession on the sea front at St Jean de Luz, another at Biarritz and they have a truly astonishing range of flavours. After a great deal of deliberation, Madame decided on a Cointreau Orange and Crème brûlée while I had a Chocolat Noir and Banane. (It's a tough job etc!)
St Jean de Luz (Place Louis XIV centre right)
We wandered through town - getting hotter & hotter - and we headed for the Place Louis XIV where the platanes had already been stripped for winter. It looked quite stark there without the familiar canopy of green overhead. We stopped at the Bar de la Marine for a sangria and, as is his wont, the dog soon introduced us to our charming neighbour and it wasn't long before she was offering him some ice cream..! 
Place Louis XIV, Saint-Jean-de-Luz
Following my painful introduction to surf rowing last weekend, you might have noticed that there's been no mention of rowing so far this week.. I probably would have been OK to start again tomorrow (Saturday) but I've got to stay at the house all day as we're having the garage rewired. I'm sure it still has the original wiring from when it was built c1930 - and the 80 year old wiring is crumbling. I'm also thinking about painting the inside of the garage - having first disposed of the numerous spiders in there - some of which look big enough to tackle a medium sized goat. Might have to send Madame in first!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

91. All you ever wanted to know about chrysanths but were afraid to ask..

27th October 2010. Walking into town this morning to pick up the bread from our current baker of choice, I noticed that our local florist had a larger than usual display of flowers and potted plants outside. The star of the show was clearly the colourful presentation of beautifully trimmed chrysanthemums in pots - and that reminded me that this weekend is a good one to avoid on France's road network. Chrysanthemums are the traditional offering at the graveside and this weekend is Toussaint (All Saints - 1st November) - a public holiday. On this day, it is customary to visit the family tombs and graves, wherever they are. Toussaint conveniently falls on Monday this year and, like so many salmon returning to their natal stream to spawn, many will be making, or at least trying to make, a long week-end out of it - notwithstanding shortages of petrol..
Normalement at this time of the year, the autoroutes and routes nationales across the country are heavy with traffic as Mamy et Papy return to their ancestral village d'enfance to pay their respects at the family tomb. Unfortunately, this mass migration brings with it a heavy toll of road accidents as septuagénaires and octogénaires, unaccustomed to driving long distances, take to the highways in droves. Be warned.. 

It should now be obvious why it's never a good idea to offer French friends chrysanthemums..
I've just returned from a late afternoon walk with the pooch around town. It's thronged with tourists - mostly French - as it's half term and Toussaint all in one. Lots of white-faced black-clad Parisians (black being the new black) were much in evidence, bumbling about and swamping the chocolatiers as they indulge in the heady delights of a chocolat à l’ancienne or a  tasse de chocolat à boire moussé à la main (below) at Cazenave.
Just as the carpet of yellow leaves underfoot signifies the approaching cold days of winter, the arrival in town of the hot chestnut man with his "little locomotive" with its blue mist of smoke rising from the smokestack is another sure sign that winter's here. There's nothing quite like a paper cone of marrons chauds to warm the hands on a cold evening. 

Finally, my answer to those who would argue that Man has no soul, that we are just an accident of nature, that we are just a "billion to one shot" anomaly that crawled out of the primeval sludge..
Further proof - if further proof be needed - here:

This is final piece of evidence - Exhibit C your honour - by Rachmaninoff is something my father would play. I think Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 (with Geza Anda) was the first classical record he bought in the fifties. Despite it being played to death on Classic FM (if you live outside the UK and need a post code to make the link work - use SW1A 2AA), it still retains the ability to hypnotise by its sheer lyrical quality. However, Amy Cheng's interpretation of the 2nd Movement takes the honours in my view:


Thursday, 21 October 2010

90. Surf Rowing

19th October 2010. Only did 5km (running total 273km) this evening - I went out in a 'yolette' with 3 beginners. They had quite a good row but it wasn't enough for me to work up a lather!

What I did do though was to sign up for a try-out of surf rowing on Saturday afternoon at Anglet.. The club has its own surf boat and it's something I've wanted to try for a long time. This video explains all.
Is it me or is there not a whiff of Village People here?! I'm not going to be wearing one of those hats! Or - before anyone asks - one of those thongs!!

21st October 2010. Very satisfying outing this evening in a well-balanced coxless quad scull IV. The crew had a good blend of technique and boeuf - evident in the distance between the puddles. Coming back, the river was quite lively due to the strong current towards the sea and an opposing wind, which gave rise to some waves.. so we came back a bit damp! 10km (running total 283km)

25th October 2010. 12km this chilly morning in a IV.. an outing that turned into a bit of a flog (running total 295km). But enough of that - after a quick lunch I returned to the club at 1pm and joined the five others who were going surf rowing with R & C. R is an Australian who works in London during the week but lives in the Pays Basque at the weekend - he commutes there and back via Ryanair. His wife, C, is French and rowed in the '92 Barcelona Olympics. R had looked at the weather and decided Hendaye would be a better bet as broken surf was forecast for Anglet. 

On arriving at Hendaye, we all changed and I couldn't help noticing that all the guys were letting it all hang out in the Cheeks Department! They were all wearing trunks that... well, look at the video above.. On inspecting the boat, I saw that there was no sliding seat to sit on - instead there was a slightly concave rectangle of plastic about 2 feet long by a foot wide that we were to slide up and down on - using water to lessen the friction between skin and seat. Except in my case it was between shorts and seat. 

We launched the boat and hopped in and started rowing through the small waves. I became aware that my seat/body interface (aka my backside!) was getting quite hot and fortunately we stopped at that point. I splashed more water on the seat and off we went again. The heat I was experiencing caused me to focus in on that to the extent that all I wanted to do was to stop, jump out and dip my burning backside into a bucket of cold water with all the sizzle you'd expect to hear when an old-time blacksmith dunked a red hot horseshoe in a tank of water..

On returning home, I found two burnt contact points - one on each cheek - that were still cooking! I'll be off rowing for a while..

Sunday, 17 October 2010

89. Saturday row

16th October 2010. Great outing on a chilly morning in a competition VIII sculler - we did a quick and very enjoyable 20km. (running total: 268km) Made mainly from carbon fibre and fitted with wing riggers like these on a sculling boat (below), the VIII was very light and a pleasure to row.
Talking to the club president afterwards, he told me the boat was made in China.. (Is there nothing they don't make?) 

While rowing up and down rivers over the last 30-40 years or so, I've often mused over the possibility of rowing facing forward.. Now it seems this too is possible:
17th October 2010. The baker in the centre of town has a poster up in the window advertising a concert by Dorado Schmitt at the theatre here in Bayonne next Wednesday.. In case you don't know him, here he is at post # 6 playing Dark Eyes - a gypsy guitar favourite at a Django Reinhardt festival in New York. If you need a reminder of his virtuosity, take a look at this clip where he plays Gypsy Melody from the film Latcho Drom:
And here he is again (except this time he's playing the violin) in another excerpt from the same film which looks like it was shot at the annual gypsy festival held at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue:
Time for your annual reminder about the health benefits of drinking red wine - specifically Madiran..
There - that felt better didn't it..!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

88. Autumn of discontent

10th October 2010. I had an outing in the VIII yesterday (à pointe - ie, rowing as opposed to sculling) which generated a new set of blisters on my right hand.. Unfortunately I think they will rule out rowing for a few days until they've healed a little.

This evening, I went to the Amlin Challenge Cup match between Bayonne and Harlequins as the guest of one of the guys from the rowing club. It had been raining steadily all day and, as kick off time approached (6.45pm), the rain gods cranked up the volume until it was coming down in great sheets that swept across the pitch in waves - and it continued to rain throughout the match with no sign of easing. Small lakes formed and the ground soon resembled a paddy field. It was obvious that the game would be a forward battle and, with the ball like a bar of soap, "up and unders" would be the chief tactic. Bayonne scored two tries while the 'Quins kicked their points. All the details are here in this report. Unfortunately the freakish weather reduced the game to something of a lottery.

12th October 2010. We've had our Basque tiler in to tile the bathroom walls and to extend some tiling in the kitchen. This afternoon I fixed the heated towel rail back on the wall which involved drilling holes in the new tiles - a nerve-racking job! - but everything went OK and now everything is back in its place. The plumber was round as well to fix a few probs with the shower. One job less!

13th October 2010. The main item of domestic news in France is the blessed series of one day strikes by the unions in protest against the government's decision to raise retirement age from 60 to 62.. Is it me but surely unions exist to defend workers rights with employers - not the State. In my view, people having a complaint about government policy should exercise their rights to complain via the political process through their elected political representatives - not via the trade unions.

As it is, 1.5 million (Govt figures) or 3.5 million (union figures) - depending upon who you believe - people were out on strike and demonstrating in the streets against the plan to raise retirement age. I think they're living in cloud-cuckoo land. The unions have seized the political agenda and are using the proposed change to retirement ages as a stick to beat the government. And of course the media shows endless footage of it all on the news bulletins and they seem to have difficulty finding people to express a contrary point of view to those of the strikers.

Yesterday I was walking into town and the police were busy holding up traffic down one of the major boulevards around Bayonne. I asked a policewoman what was happening and she explained that schoolkids were demonstrating against the changes in retirement policy. Sure enough, minutes later, a column of slightly self-conscious teenagers came lolloping along. Successive French governments have bowed to union power over the last few decades and now the country is paying the price. For example, SNCF* workers retire at 50 and can travel free in first class. Retirement at 50 was maybe a good idea when life on the footplate was considerably harder work than is the case today. However, today's train drivers have a clean sedentary job without the physical exertions of the past. Another factor in the equation is life expectancy. This has been steadily rising in France to the extent that French life expectancy is right up there in the World top 10. Economically therefore, it has become increasingly difficult to fund a pension system that has to provide for 2 decades (or more) of retirement. I think the State should have done more to explain the rationale behind the changes..
*French state railways

Here's a quirky (and jerky!) film about Bayonne that takes you into the heart of the town:
My image of the week:
If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand..!

15th October 2010. Before the strikes in France start squeezing fuel supplies, I thought I'd go and fill the car up over the border in Spain yesterday. Driving through Ustaritz en route to Dancharia there's a spot on the road where I usually expect to see a broad sweeping view of the western Pyrenees. Not so yesterday.. We're definitely into the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness here now. The hills were partly masked behind clouds of mist in the pale gold morning light. It was hard to believe that the darker outline that showed through the clouds now and again was actually composed of solid rock. Leaves have also started to fall and in the high mountains, hunters will soon be reaping the annual harvest of thousands of palombes (pigeon) which will appear in local restaurants as salmis de palombes. There are links to some other great Basque dishes too - plus many of the Basque specialities you'll need to stock your winter cupboard with. Naturally, where there's a choice delicacy in France, you won't be surprised to find a Confrérie lurking in the wings..

Recipe for salmis de palombes

Les ingrédients:

2 pigeons,
1 slice of Bayonne ham
10 onions, 6 shallots, 1 clove garlic
1 small carrot
½ tablespoon flour
2 glasses of full bodied red wine
1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme and bay leaf) salt and pepper
1 litre of stock
1 tablespoon flour
some mushrooms
croutons of bread fried in butter
1 glass of brandy

Cooking time: 1½hrs


Cut each pigeon into 4. In a pan, fry the pieces in olive oil. Add onions and minced garlic, chopped shallots and diced ham. Sauté quickly & remove from heat when the flesh is stiff (5 min). Remove and keep warm. Keep cooking oil. Return it to low heat and mix it with flour, stirring constantly. Bring the red wine to the boil. Then add the oil and flour mixture and whisk well. Add the pigeons, garlic, onions, shallots, ham. Add the stock, salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat for 1½hrs. Half an hour before the end of cooking, remove the pigeon quarters, flambé with brandy and return to the sauce. Check and adjust seasoning if necessary.

If it was me, I'd be opening a bottle of Madiran with this.. and not just for the advertised health benefits either. Available in the UK from Leon Stolarski and also Tanners in Hereford.

Bon appetit!