Friday, 16 December 2011

172. St Jean de Luz out of season

16th December 2011. Yesterday Madame thought it would be a good idea if I took a break from my PC and so we drove down to St Jean de Luz in the afternoon. The car was registering a warm 17C (63F) and unlike in summer, parking at St J was a doddle. The Christmas tourists from Paris, Bordeaux or Toulouse have still to arrive so we had the town more or less to ourselves. We found the prime spot to leave the car on the sea front (normally unobtainium) and stepped up to the sea wall to look at the bay. What we saw stopped us dead in our tracks. Normalement, the bay is calmness itself and it's probably one of the safest places to bathe on the Côte Basque - but it was high tide and a raging surf was running right beneath us with rollers surging into the bay and breaking over the usually benign beaches.

Further north, there'd been a deep low pressure circulation out the Atlantic for some days and the onshore winds have been whipping up the Golfe de Gascogne (better known to us Anglos as the Bay of Biscay) with the result as described. Despite the fury of the sea, there were around 15 or so surfers out there braving the elements. Looking out beyond the breakwaters, towering grey rollers were rearing up high before breaking in a foamy turmoil - difficult to estimate how high they were but I would have said a minimum of 5 metres.. Quite a few other people were standing on the promenade - like us - transfixed by the spectacle. The normally flat horizon was jagged with these angry waves that were forming far out to sea. The breakwaters themselves were disappearing every few seconds in explosive welters of dazzling white foam. As we walked along the sea front I found myself stopping every few steps to have another look. The size and power of some of the waves out at sea beggared belief.. I'd like to have taken the car out on the Corniche (coast road) between St Jean de Luz and Hendaye to see if that celebrated wave at Belharra was running.  We took one last look before reluctantly stepping down a side street and heading down to the Place Louis XIV for a coffee. 
On days like this, St Jean de Luz was a real pleasure to be footloose & fancy free in.. There were only locals and the narrow streets were blessedly free of stop/start crowds. We selected a table at the Bar de la Marine which is, as the link says, ideally situated in the heart of the town centre for people watching. It's also right next to the inner harbour. Sitting there in the warm sunshine it was hard to believe that Christmas was only 10 days away and still not a bunga bunga party in my diary! (I jest of course!)    

While we're on the maritime theme, here's an old one from Christopher Cross: 
Haven't played Django for a while but this morning I caught this on TSF Jazz (have a listen here) - & thought you might like it. Here's the man with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet:

Right - back to work!

Later.. I've just been closing all our heavy wooden shutters at the rear of the house (that faces due west) as the forecast is for some strong winds during the night. At times like this I'm glad we had the place double-glazed. If we hadn't have had it done, it would have been one cold & draughty night here. As it is, by the time any stray gusts have found their way past the shutters (that are almost an inch thick), and past the double glazing, whatever force the wind had has been completely spent.

I don't usually comment on politics here but you would have had to have been living on another planet not to have heard about the latest spat between France and Britain.. Here's Matt's view of it all..!  

20th December 2011. If you know Bayonne, here's a short video of the town in 1900.. and it's completely recognisable from those far-off days. As you might expect, the pavement cafés spilling over into the road have gone but for the rest - well, see for yourself:
I spotted a Vacherin Mont d'Or lurking in the fridge yesterday.. ready for Christmas. Forget farmhouse cheddar, Stilton, American cheese or what have you - this is the king of cheeses. Made both in Switzerland and in France, there's everything you need to know about Vacherin (and many other cheeses) here. Here's a short video that shows how the Swiss do things:
I think I'm going to be pulling the plug here for a few days while we ingest an excessive amount of calories.. so to all of you out there in Blogistan, your correspondent wishes you a very Happy Christmas and good health in the New Year.. It's been an extremely busy few months for me with work and it looks as though the New Year will be more of the same. I'm enjoying it very much but when the warm weather returns I might be saying that through gritted teeth! So, away with you, go and wrap the dog or take your presents for a walk.. while I warm my feet by the fire we don't have.. 
Spare a thought for those who aren't as fortunate.. I'm looking for somewhere (like a childrens hospital or similar) in Bayonne to take a box of toys.. 
"Piperade Towers" is in fairly close proximity to the Law Courts in Bayonne and the road outside the house is heavily used for parking by members of the legal profession. We (the royal we) parked on the pavement outside our house a couple of months ago and picked up a 35€ parking ticket. Curiously, when the court is in session the pavements are full of Mercs, BMWs, Audis etc parked with two wheels up on the narrow pavement - the parking gods must be smiling on them as they never seem to attract the attention of the local police. Wonder if it's got anything to do with this sticker which they all display prominently on their windscreens? Surely not..! (Thinks: how can I print one off..?)

23rd December 2011. I heard a day or two ago that Cape Verde's finest export (perhaps its only one) - Cesario Evora - had died.. I featured one of her songs a year or two ago after we'd been given one of her CDs. 
This next one is probably her best known song:
Finally, let's end on a happy note:

Friday, 2 December 2011

171. Now is the winter of our content..

2nd December 2011. After the quick trip down to Salon de Provence earlier this week I've been spending the last day or two catching up with all the trivia. However, there's one event that can't be ignored and it's one that's coming up fast over the horizon. I'm referring of course to Christmas.. I was looking at this French 'ard deescoont' site for Madame's favourite eau de toilette but they don't appear to stock it so a visit to the perfumed halls of Galeries Lafayette in Bayonne is called for. I must also pay a call to the chocolatiers in town for some of that dark, dark chocolate that she loves. If you want to spoil your sweetheart (and why wouldn't you?) take a look at some of the chocolatiers in the Pays Basque who have a web presence: here, here or here.

Here's a clip from our local beach at Anglet (just 5 mins north of Biarritz) - the perfect place for a post-lunch bumble!
Yesterday afternoon we went down to the beach at Anglet and according to the car it was an unseasonable 20½C (or 69 in Ye Olde half-timbered Fahrenheit) - on 1st December already!  No complaints from me though. There was a thunderous surf running, huge rollers were rearing up and crashing with depth charge-like explosions of whiter-than-white foam against the end of the jetty, the air was heavy with salt spray and the dog's ears were flapping horizontal in the wind!
I've just found the following clip which was filmed at Anglet during some heavy seas last February. Scroll forward to start at 0:50.. At the mouth of the Adour there are a couple of breakwaters that we often walk out on to watch the sea. On days like the one in the clip below however, the council puts barriers out to persuade all but the eejits to remain onshore. You can see why at 4:06..! The sea front is dotted with German blockhouses that look as though they might just last for 1,000 years (as promised!). 
Lawn Update.. (you've been waiting for this haven't you!) We've been re-seeding the moth-eaten sections of the optimistically named lawn with grass seed that claims to be 'Rustique Sud'. This is a grass that has a broader leaf and the Sud part of the name implies that it should be successful in these 'ere parts. Meanwhile the local bird population must be thinking that it's an early Christmas for them too! I think we have a couple of pigeons nesting in one of the trees and their idea of a good day out is to peck great holes in the lawn. Little treasures! This morning I set a net up over the grass in an attempt to give it a fighting chance of survival. We'll see. 

The Christmas Village in town opened yesterday.. I haven't been down to see it yet but here's a look at last year's: 
Meanwhile, these lines by A E Houseman have been running through my head:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

3rd December 2011. A brisk outing on a cold river in an VIII sculler this morning - we finished up being pursued by another VIII, set up for rowing (as opposed to sculling). If you're unsure of the difference have a squint at this. We did 17km - with the last 2-3km being quite lively! Then into the clubhouse for an apéro as it's the first Saturday in the month.

I went into Spain this afternoon to stock up with a few essentials (think Scotland - that's all I'm saying!). In the steeply sloping fields of the border area I saw a few new-born lambs of the season tottering about in their mother's wake.. looking as if they were made of pipe cleaners. They don't normally make their appearance so early do they?   

4th December 2011. Just been out to the baker mentioned here for a baguette tradition - these are the best baguettes in Bayonne by a long way. I've been to this baker perhaps 3-4 times before and I've always asked for a baguette tradition bien cuite (ie, well baked) each time. Three or four times is not very often so today when I asked for a baguette tradition (forgetting the bien cuite)the lady turned around to select one and she added, "Bien cuite!" I congratulated her on her memory and she laughed.. I don't suppose she numbers too many Brits among her customers. (so much for my accent!!)

That's one of the aspects of living in a town this size that I enjoy - you do get to make contact with people. I was at the garden centre this afternoon buying a new lead for the pooch - in that endearing way of his he'd chewed his way through the last one and it parted this morning in the centre of Bayonne while I was en route to buy bread. Anyway, back at the garden centre I bumped into one of the girls from the rowing club - she greatly resembles Charlotte Rampling - and she planted a couple of bisous on my cheeks - this is one 'furrin' tradition that should be encouraged in England!

Spotted this picture (right) in a BBC TV report about the recent demonstrations in London against the government cutbacks. Somehow I don't think the Brits have quite yet grasped the noble art of demonstrating. This sign won't be giving David Cameron many sleepless nights!☺ It's completely in line though with an observation someone once made that if ever there was a revolution in England and the howling mob was told to 'take' a railway station, they'd all buy platform tickets. Revolutions don't work in mild climates. We've been brought up to be polite, not make a fuss, show consideration for others, say 'sorry' if someone bumps into us and so we don't really do rampaging.. It's not our style. I'm not trying to claim some form of moral superiority here but that's how it is.

While we're thinking about surf, have a look at these truly disturbing images of very large waves that are found just a little bit further south down the coast. It's the giant wave that breaks on the Belharra Reef, just to the south of St Jean de Luz.. Any takers?

6th December 2011. There are odd things I notice here that sometimes I wish I carried a dictaphone for.. I've got the memory of a goldfish these days. As it is, I was reminded by something on the radio just a few minutes ago of a cliché that's used here a lot in the media if they're discussing something British. Whatever it is they are discussing, if it's British it's always labelled "So British".. whatever that means. And another thing - it's become fashionable now for people in the media to use the word 'Yes' as a kind of exclamation mark.. One last one - I saw an advert in one of those free "What's On in the Côte Basque" magazines for a bar that promises drinks, ambiance and 'fooding'. Again, so British!  

With Christmas coming up, here's a little reminder of you-know-what:
11th December 2011. On Thursday I was at the rhumatologues for some injections in my knees. About 2 years ago, he gave me a series of 3 injections over 2 weeks in my knees of a silicon-like compound. On Thursday, I was there for an all-in-one shot via a needle about the size of a bicycle pump (only a slight exaggeration..). He preceded it with (look away now!) an anaesthetic shot into each knee, followed by the 'Big One'. Afterwards, I walked to the car feeling quite sprightly but later on I was hobbling around as the effects of the anaesthesia wore off. Sunday sees me still moving awkwardly but hopefully things will have settled down in a day or two.

Strange but nonetheless very welcome weather this year - yesterday afternoon it was a balmy 19C (66F).. It's difficult to imagine Christmas being a matter of only two weeks away. I went out and bought a proper desk chair yesterday. With all the time I'm spending stuck in front of this screen with work, my old Victorian wooden chair was putting a permanent flat spot on my backside.. so this modern cushioned swivelling tiltable adjustable jobby was sorely needed.

13th December 2011. Here's a Paul McCartney song that I was unfamiliar with until I heard it on the radio the other day for the first time.. There's something very nostalgic about the first few lines that reminds me of those 'Rupert' books that I used to read as a kid at my aunty's house. She always kept a few early ones under a cushion and they were much sought after. They were beautifully illustrated in a slightly surreal style - the professor in his smoking jacket, hot air balloons, castles in the clouds etc set against an iridescent background. I see from the link above that the current price is £70..
The Dubliners have long been a favourite of mine - here's Barney MacKenna with his instrumental version of 'Boulevogue'.. 
14th December 2011. If you'd like to see what's happening in Bayonne right now - clicking on this will take you to a live web cam set up in front of the Town Hall - it shows a small part of the Christmas market. If you'd like to see it in HD full screen, then click on the small icon to the right of the slider at the foot of the webcam image.. (then Esc to leave) Clicking on this will take you to a Basque choir..

Meanwhile Biarritz, our more glitzy neighbours just 10 minutes down the road, is putting on a spectacular light show this year:
We'll definitely be taking a look..

In the interests of balance, I can't leave St Jean de Luz out so here's a short video I liberated from their Tourist Office site:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

170. Dark nights in the Pays Basque

23rd November 2011. This morning I was at the coiffeurs getting coiffed (that's a haircut to you and me..) by the coiffeuse when I asked her about a nice old house across the road that had clearly been standing empty for a long while. In the few years since I'd first noticed it, it had been looking increasingly forlorn and severely in need of major restoration. Apparently it had belonged to a notaire but, for some unfathomable reason, he'd allowed it to go to rack and ruin. However, over the past few months, it has been finally getting 'the treatment' from a small army of artisans who have been hard at work putting it back in order. The word is that it's going to be a bank and I was told that it had been sold 'à la bougie' (English translation here) at the Town Hall.
I had to look this up as it was a new term to me. It seems that this is an ancient method, dating from the 15th century, of controlling the sale of property at an auction. For voluntary sales, properties are commonly sold à la bougie. Whoever is running the auction lights a small candle to start the bidding. This burns until the last bid is made, at which point another candle is lit. Both candles must then burn out without another bid being made, then the final bid is considered as accepted.

There's another of these run-down properties, a large Basque house dating from the '20s, just around the corner from here which is receiving armloads of TLC.. I shudder to think what the final bill will be as there's been a constant to-ing and fro-ing of specialists of all kinds with their ubiquitous white vans outside for at least 4-5 months. The first thing to go was the roof - all the tiles came off and then all the old roof beams were junked before a new roof was built and tiled. My guess is that the new owner won't see much change from a million euros. I remember the asking price wasn't far off half a million - unrestored.

With just over a month to go, you'd be hard-pressed to spot any sign of impending Christmas here - I haven't seen any Christmas lights up yet. It's far from the cash register churning event it's evolved into in the UK with the nature, trend and volume of retail sales being reported, analysed and talked to death by 'retail experts' in the main evening news. Here, I see that the Christmas village for kids is being set up in front of the Town Hall from 1st-24th December.
I had to resort to ordering some Christmas cards via the internet as greeting card shops are thin on the ground here. In the UK, greeting card shops are embedded in every High Street and there's a card for every occasion. A different story here - there's not much choice when it comes to Christmas cards as the custom is to send New Year cards rather than Christmas cards or, heaven forbid, Happy Winter Holiday cards - don't start me off!

Christmas is more of a family-orientated day here with practically none of the razzamatazz that seems part and parcel of it elsewhere. Christmas dinner takes place on Christmas Eve which is all well and good - until Christmas Day arrives.. It's absolutely no hardship at all for me to sit down to a groaning table on Christmas Eve - the difficulty comes when you're faced with relative abstinence the following day, particularly after a lifetime of being programmed to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day! Solution? A French Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and an English Christmas dinner on Christmas Day - followed by a call to DynoRod®..!

One thing I do miss about Christmas in the UK is the annual showing on TV of "Where Eagles Dare" - without which no respectable senior programme editor would deem the Christmas period programming to be complete - though I've never quite seen the seasonal link between it and Christmas.. (PS One of the best openings of any film!)

I'm away in the south of France next week for a few days for a meeting with my customer. I've just dispatched an almighty wodge of work (technical term!) to him and so next week, I'm hopping on the TGV to Paris - yes, Paris! - before changing stations and catching another TGV to come all the way back down south again. While we're talking about TGVs, here's a reminder of the current world record holder at just shy of 360mph..(yes, miles per hour!) 
Having looked at all the options (air, road, train) it turned out that this was the optimum method of doing the journey.. It's only when faced with planning a trip like this that you realise just how Paris-centric the transport infrastructure is. (Note to self: need to brush up on how to knot a tie again!)

Looking out of the window in the last few minutes, it seemed to go dark suddenly in the space of a few minutes. As the sun is well over the yard arm I think the time could be ripe for an 'attitude adjuster'..

26th November 2011. A cold and misty outing on the river this morning in a coxless IV. There was a good turn-out and we managed to put out a couple of VIIIs and maybe 5-6 IVs. As we gained the upper reaches of the Nive we entered a monochrome world - not of black and white - with a weak sun breaking through the morning mist and lighting the scene in the palest of yellows. At one point we looked behind us and an VIII was silhouetted against the golden light as the crew turned it around and - as one - we all wished we'd had our cameras with us..  (14km)

Into Bayonne this afternoon with the dog looking for ideas for Christmas. Spotted a few likely candidates - such as these marrons glacés - and one or two other things.
Forgot to mention that SaxMan™ is back in town.. he was standing outside Galeries Lafayette playing another endlessly repeated riff.

Here's something to take your minds off the cold weather.. this was the absolutely mesmerising intermission act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.. Warning: Don't try this at home! (especially not in your slippers!)

This next one launches into a series of Riverdance clips.. I've heard that many people on the internet are reputed to have the attention span of the average goldfish☺but if you've never seen 'Riverdance' - stick with it.. you'll be amazed! Step forward to around 1:15..
We saw the 'Riverdance' show in the UK and what an unforgettable experience that was..!

And finally, here's something I found earlier - a magnificent slow-motion clip (1,000 frames/sec) of an eagle owl about to rip to shreds that nice silk tie that Auntie Ethel gave you for Christmas last year - it's best in full screen!

Friday, 4 November 2011

169. TVPI - our local Pays Basque TV

3rd November 2011. I finished the latest large lump of work today. I've been working 12 hour days - and longer - to break the back of this job. Tomorrow, I'll have to start reviewing and checking all I've done. A satisfying feeling though.

If you've ever wondered what Bayonne is like (and come on, be honest, who hasn't!) then here are a couple of short films from our local TV station - TVPI. If you pronounce this in the French fashion it comes out as "Tay Vay Payee" - Pays being French for country. It's not an exact translation though as Pays in French has a strong connotation with the part of the country you're from - as in roots. Anyway, here's Part 1. If you speak French and you're wondering why you can't understand a word he's saying - the answer is he's speaking Basque.
Here's Part 2:
This short film concerns itself with the stone markers that delineate the border between France and Spain up in the hills:
And as we head into the darker days of autumn and winter, here's a reminder of summer fun at St Jean de Luz..
4th November 2011. I stopped off at Carrefour today to have a quick look at their wine dept to see if they stocked Château Bouscassé.. Interestingly, they did - but where the display should have been was a large empty space - so I'm obviously not the only one who likes it.. I fancied buying a few bottles before the Christmas shopping avalanche starts - although I might already be too late! (just found this link here to a UK supplier who stocks Alain Brumont's wines - including Château Bouscassé - give yourself a treat this Christmas!)  

5th November 2011. Around this time last year the rains started.. it rained every day for a month. OK, sometimes the rain arrived overnight but there wasn't one day for a complete month that didn't have some rain in it. This morning, at 6.30am it was raining when I let the dog out for his early morning inspection of his territory. Not sure about rowing yet this morning.. I don't mind too much if it starts raining while I'm out on the water but putting a boat out in the middle of a downpour ain't my idea of fun. We'll see.

We went across the border to Spain as there's a small shop there that makes copies of Hermès handbags at a fraction of the price of the real thing. Afterwards we were in St Jean de Luz in the late afternoon for a few errands - we (the royal we) were window-shopping here in the Rue Gambetta  (the main shopping street) when a rain shower blew through so we looked around and we noticed that we were only a quick dash away from Maison Etchebaster - a long-established (1909) pâtisserie and chocolatier and another good address (I hope you're making a note of all these!) for a hot chocolate and a macaron. Just after we found a table, other people came in dripping and suddenly the place was full. This was the first time I've had a macaron from here and it was deliciously heavy with ground almonds.

In keeping with the French predilection for occasionally giving their shops bizarre names - we saw a supermarket called Le Mutant up near Arcachon a few months ago - and on the way back home to Bayonne I saw a sign for the Café Bullimic (exactly as it was spelled).. I imagine they'd need security on the door there to keep the crowds out!

I mentioned macarons above and I should point out that these come in different styles. There are these that come in a range of luminous colours and are quite addictive. Paul make them as do Dodin; L Raux at Bayonne; Henriet, Biarritz; and there must be others.
Then there are the ones made at Maison Adam (below).. a delightfully old fashioned pâtisserie & chocolatier (established in 1660..!) in St Jean de Luz. Check out their surprisingly modern web site. You're going to hate me for telling you this but you can order online.. and with Christmas looming over  the horizon, why not give your lady an unexpected treat..?

Explaining what they all taste like is impossible in words so the only solution is to make your way down here and get stuck into some real hard work of comparative tasting. As the saying has it - it's a tough job but someone has to do it! My particular favourite are the pistachio flavoured ones from the multi-coloured range above. And maybe the dark chocolate ones. Well, you can't stop at two - which is why they come in boxes of 6, 12 or 24..

I must admit to being quite taken with the macarons we had this afternoon at Maison Etchebaster.. The price was a pleasant surprise too - at 1.60€ for two.

6th November 2011. Downstairs early this morning (~7am) to let the dog out - which is normally an occasion of great excitement for him. This morning? He poked his nose out of the door to the garden, sniffed the air for a few seconds which was full of rain lashing down before he reluctantly decided to step outside. Wonder if we're in for a month of rain like last year?

7th November 2011. Day 3 - still raining..

8th November 2011. Day 4 - it must have rained during the night as the terrace was wet this morning. Uh-oh.. we could be in for another wet November although it's forecast to be 21C here tomorrow - which probably only means that the rain will be warm..

I received the latest batch of work last night so I'm afraid I won't have too much time for the blog. You'll have to talk amongst yourselves for 2-3 weeks while I dispose of it.

At a time when financial pressures are squeezing French restaurants and some are being accused of 'dumbing down', lowering standards and serving bought-in meals, it's reassuring to watch clips like this one that featured on lunchtime's TF1 news today.. It makes me feel like jumping in the car and driving straight up there!

9th November 2011. This morning the sky echoed to a familiar sound.. multiple straggling V formations of grues cendrées (cranes) heading south west on their annual migration to warmer climes. An inspiring sight and one that reminds me that the mystery of migration is another aspect of nature we don't fully understand.. Long may it remain so.
Meanwhile, Honda is continuing to develop its intriguing Asimo robot.. video here.. Think about the stunning technology that lies behind this latest iteration. And just think what it will capable of in future.. They could work on production lines doing endlessly repetitive tasks 24/7.. 52 weeks of the year. No need to pay them, no social charges, no pensions, no holidays, no sickness benefits. If that scenario ever came to fruition, how long do you think it would be before they were unionised!

11th November 2011. Beautiful morning down here in the Pays Basque so we decided to have lunch outside somewhere..

First though, this was the year we finally decided to have an artificial Christmas tree. I've avoided these things like the plague in the past - but the baggage associated with buying a real tree has become a pain - driving out to the garden centre to pick "the right one" from the thousands of hopefuls, squeezing it into the car, getting it into the house, persuading the dog not to pee on it (!), before removing it and disposing of it afterwards. Plus getting rid of all the needles from the house and the car..

It felt decidedly weird to be going out to buy a Christmas tree under blue skies with the temperature at 11am already climbing past 20+.. We ended up at Carrefour (where else?) where we found the one we wanted and, of course, it was Made in China. Is it me or is there not something slightly odd about the idea of a factory half way around the world in far off China churning out fake Christmas trees by the thousand - made by people who (presumably) have no idea of the symbolism and magic of Christmas? Another straw in the wind.

Artificial trees have come a long way since their introduction to the UK market in the 50s when they were made by - you'll never believe this - Addis (of toilet brush fame). This factoid wasn't widely advertised at the time (I wonder why!) - I guess the marketing men saw early on that this particular product linkage was a non-starter. They were quick to realise that the festive attraction of a 7 foot quasi-toilet brush occupying pride of place would have only limited market appeal.. And despite what it says here (scroll down to the 'Controversy' paras!), the Christmas tree will always be known as the Christmas tree in this house - not the Holiday tree. (Aaarrgghh!)

Anyway, where were we..? Oh yes - lunch! We headed south to Ascain to our old restaurant there.. Sitting at a table on their terrace overlooking the Pyrenees ½ hour later, it was hard to believe the date.. 11th November and, according to the car, it was 25.5°C (78°F!) They were still running their Autumn menu that features the best of local produce.. The starter? We both went for the Autumnal platter.. Jambon de Bayonne, some coarse pâté, asparagus tips, pan fried foie gras, some ventrèche, a few gherkins (or jerkins as Madame pronounces it!) and a few other bits and pieces. We started to make inroads on a bottle of Gorri d'Ansa Irouleguy.. Following the advice of C, the waiter, we'd both ordered wild boar for our main course and we weren't disappointed.. Butter soft and served with cranberries and potatoes sautéed in goose fat, things went quiet for a while.. As they say here - an angel passed.. After that, grape sorbet with Marc d'Irouleguy was the perfect antidote.. After a coffee, we re-traced the old walk we used to make around the village - up through the trees and winding lanes.  

12th November 2011. Down to the river this morning for an outing in a VII sculler - yes, a seven.. We went out with no-one occupying the bow seat - or 8 as it's known in France - as its riggers were missing. We did 16km on a warm morning. By the way, I'm not keeping a running total this year. I only did it last year because I was curious to see how far I rowed in a year. 

13th November 2011. Something reminded me of this brilliant advert for Carling Black Label lager this morning..

It was warm enough today (24C) to set the table and chairs out for lunch.. and it was shorts and t-shirt weather too.. in mid-November..!

After the usual trip to the déchetterie with garden rubbish, I'd gone on to the market at Anglet and bought a pain levain.. which had the crispiest crust of any baguette we've had for a long time. I opened a bottle of Château Peyros Madiran.. which was just right with a roast farm chicken. I'd be more than happy to drink this at Christmas.

Afterwards, I sat there in the sunshine, with a Greek coffee (and a cigarillo) - hard to believe that Christmas is only about 6 weeks away.

20th November 2011. An outing in a coxed IV yesterday morning - did 16km in perfect conditions - it was high tide on the river so there was virtually no current and while there was bright sunshine, it wasn't enough to make rowing uncomfortable. It was cool enough for most of us to be in leggings.. A newish member (Franco-American) somehow managed to go for an early bath as he was leaving the pontoon in a single sculler.. over he went - sploosh.. Luckily for him the current wasn't running otherwise the outcome might have been different. The river narrows here to pass through the town and sometimes there can be a fierce current.

With the approach of winter, here's a clip I found of Biarritz shot in December - when it's so different to the madding crowds of July and August. The hills in the background at the right are the Trois Couronnes (3 Crowns) and it was around these that the Comet Line evaders would climb en route to freedom.
At 8am yesterday morning I finished the first pass of the current instalment of work - 1,000+ PowerPoint slides on aviation meteorology edited and corrected. Last night I started the review process of all I'd done and I should be able to email it all away by mid week. Phew!

Friday, 28 October 2011

168. Mussels in Brussels..

26th October 2011. Back home late on Monday night after a long weekend away in Belgium for the Comète Line Reunion. If the activities of the WWII Comète Line are new to you, here's an excellent intro. We'd decided to drive up to Belgium and it took us ~11 hours to do the 1100km. The plan was to stay two nights with B and then two nights with A (B's brother) and L-M.

Although our GPS coverage shuts down at the frontiers of Gaul - it's a case of Here be dragons beyond that - we somehow managed to find B's house which was situated in a winding maze of unmarked country lanes in farming country about 40 minutes south of Brussels. A hearty portion of steak/frites eased down with a couple of glasses of red in a nearby village restored the inner man and we were ready for bed.  

We had a good night's coma and the next morning we decided to do some tidying up of B's garden. Despite it being much colder than we're used to - the car was covered in frost - after that long drive north it was good to be out in the bright sunshine under a blue sky. We collected fallen branches and a few old logs and it wasn't long before there was the crackle of burning wood as the flames took hold (a 1 match job!) and soon a healthy column of blue smoke was rising up in the crisp morning air. After lunch, B took us for a drive around the tangle of lanes and showed us some local landmarks. The evening saw us in Brussels where we met Jeanine de Greef (daughter of Elvire aka "Tante Go"- the legendary head of Comète's operations in south west France) together with C and A (A is the daughter of Freddy de Greef - Elvire's brother). Don't worry about all the names - there won't be a test! We enjoyed mussels and frites at that grand old Bruxelloise institution - Chez Léon. This deserves a place on anyone's list of top 50 places to eat before you die..
We were up early on Saturday morning and after a quick breakfast we were back on the road to Brussels again where we would join up with everyone. I was wearing a tie for the first time in a loong time and once again my trusty diagram saved the day! We climbed aboard our coach for a tour of sites of special relevance to the Comète Line. We drove past the Swedish Canteen - a front for the de facto centre of Comète operations in wartime Brussels - stopping at the plaque honouring Jean Greindl aka 'Nemo' (who ran the Brussels operation for 6 months before being arrested in February 1943) before heading out to the De Jongh family home in Schaerbeek to lay some flowers. We then drove on to the Enclos des Fusillés where 11 members of Comète were shot on 20th October 1943. (Edith Cavell - Andrée de Jongh's inspiration - was shot here during the Great War) It still retains its dank, sombre and poignant atmosphere - not somewhere that you'd choose to spend your last moments on earth.

After this we travelled a bit further to the Monument of the Women deported to Ravensbrück at Woluwé St Lambert where flowers were laid by 'Nadine' (herself a survivor of Ravensbrück) and 'Monique'.
Everyone was very moved by this visit and it remains a fitting memorial to Man's inhumanity to Man.

It was here that I became aware of Henriette 'Monique' Hanotte. She'd been a guide for Comète, passing evaders across the Franco-Belge frontier until she was 'burnt' - ie, her identity compromised. At this point, she made the long journey with Comète down to south west France and eventually landed back in England where she was trained as an SOE agent. Here's a film that describes the Special Operations Executive (SOE) that was initiated by Churchill after the fall of France. 

This training would have included hand-to-hand combat, proficiency with small arms, sabotage, demolition, silent killing, parachuting and a host of other skills that aren't very marketable in today's world - at least in the world that most of us live in.. 

Today she looks like everyone's favourite grandmother - but when she spoke passionately about those wartime days, there was no mistaking the set of her jaw and the fire in her eyes. I'd not met her before but the old determination that drove her is clearly still there - a wonderful brave lady.

If you wish to know more about the WWII escape lines, "Home Run" by John Nichol & Tony Rennell is highly recommended. (a used copy from here is a wallet-busting £0.01p! It's a gripping read..)

After a good lunch, we went to a cinema for a private showing of "The Last Passage" - more here. We had dinner at the Grand Café before leaving B to spend 2 nights with A and L-M.   Due to a motorway bridge being removed, our route out of Brussels was severely congested and so it was late by the time we arrived at A & L-M's house - but not too late for a very welcome wee dram! We slept well that night - all this activity was tiring..
Sunday morning saw us en route for the colossal brick-built Basilica at Koekelberg (above) - the largest Art Deco building in the world, for a tri-lingual Sunday Mass (Flemish, French, English) which was to be followed by homage to those of Comète by the dedicated stained glass window and the RAF Chapel. Here's a remarkable short clip of it that uses some clever tricks (I think zooming out as the camera approaches) to produce an almost 3D effect..

After this, we set off for the Maison de Ailes (below left) where we had a splendid lunch complete with a piper! The pipes have the ability to set the emotions churning and this was especially true for the small Scottish contingent. We shared a table with W and K, a charming couple who'd travelled all the way from California. I met them during the 2010 Comète walk in the Pyrenees and it was good to see them again. They weren't the furthest travelled though.. M, an Australian lady, had come all the way from Queensland for this weekend. The Comète fraternity has this effect on people.
Het Huis der Vleugels /
La Maison des Ailes

Finally, it was time to bid farewell to all our friends and head back to A's house. All too soon though, the next morning we were back on the road to the south west. We set off on Monday morning at 9.30 and after a long wet drive we finally arrived back home in the Pays Basque at 10pm. Phew...!

28th October 2011. We spent a warm afternoon in St Jean de Luz - there were quite a few people on the beach and even some still swimming. It may have been cold up in Belgium but our hosts' welcome couldn't have been warmer. A most memorable few days.

29th October 2011. Down to the river this morning for the first time in several weeks - I'm afraid to say the Rugby World Cup had taken priority with the big matches being shown here live on Saturday mornings. There was a very strong current running downstream and it made for slow progress up the river. Despite that, we rowed almost as far as Villefranque in a mixed VIII sculler. Once we'd turned around though, our pace quickened and we sped down river. We did 18km and I have to admit that at the moment I can feel every one of them!

There's a big match in Bayonne today and there are plenty of red & yellow clad Perpignan supporters in evidence. I wondered if Mike Phillips (the Welsh scrum half) - the latest addition to Bayonne's line-up - would be playing or if he's still on post-RWC wind-down. He's an intelligent, quick-witted scrum half with real physical presence - he's 6'3" (1.90m) - and very mobile. His form for Wales augurs well for Bayonne this season.

Another new player and one just as talented is the French international full back Cédric Heymans.. Like Mike, a hard running player, he's seldom had a game for Les Bleus where he failed to make an impression. Both he and Mike bring some much-needed international class to Aviron Bayonnais.. who are currently lying 10th in the Top 14. By contrast, our nearest & dearest neighbours Biarritz Olympique have had a cracking start to the season - storming straight to the bottom of the French Top 14! (equivalent to the Aviva Premiership in England) - sorry - couldn't resist that one..!

30th October 2011. The steady march of the season into autumn continues.. Today, as I bumbled into Bayonne with the dog for a baguette, I noticed that the small locomotive - similar to this (left) - that sells hot chestnuts is in position. The smell of hot roasting chestnuts is one the distinctive smells of autumn & winter here. Also, the pavements were carpeted with an increasing number of purply-red-yellow leaves. The tree-lined Allée Paulmy (a major boulevard in the centre of town) looked very autumnal with its foliage displaying well. The usual suspects were out and about too. The lady who optimistically twirls her scarf for a few centimes - a minimalistic act I've commented on previously - was in position but there didn't seem to be much action heading her way.

The weather is still being kind to us - I'm writing this with the study windows wide open. There was a report on the lunchtime news about an unseasonably early dump of snow on the US East Coast.. so if you're reading this in North America - look away now! Here, the forecast for tomorrow is 23C (73F).  

Ramparts, Bayonne
31st October 2011. It was so warm today at lunchtime we had lunch on the terrace. The shade temperature was 20C but it was much warmer in the sun. That will probably be the last time this year that we sit outside. The cloudless sky was criss-crossed with high level contrails streaking silently across the Bay of Biscay - bringing back all those who'd squeezed in one last trip south for the sunshine. I did my bit for the Greek economy by finishing up with a Greek coffee (I like mine metrios) and a cigarillo (yes I know!).. Taking the dog out afterwards for his daily leg stretch, the garden walls were alive with the sound of scurrying feet as lizards basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine darted for cover as I walked by. I felt over-dressed as I walked the pooch around Vauban's ramparts - the sun was hot on my back. Still largely cloudless at 5.30pm but the forecast is for this fine weather to break tomorrow. Pity!

2nd November 2011. Incidentally, I've just noticed that Alain Brumont, the celebrated viticulteur who produces that marvellous Madiran - Chateau Bouscassé - is having an Open Day over the weekend of 19-20 November. Remember all those articles about the health benefits of Madiran red wine? Earlier in the year, when we were staying in the high Pyrenees for a few days, we were offered a bottle of Chateau Bouscassé (Madiran).. and I was bowled over by its quality. It was right up there with the best Bordeaux I've ever tasted. Seriously. Well worth seeking out a bottle to try - but don't just take my word for it - take a look at this link and scroll down to the paragraph in red.. More glowing reviews here. It's always reassuring to find out that your own experience matches the views of the experts. Here's the Great Man himself:

And, for interest, here are his 11 Commandments:

I. Strong plantation density: 7500 vines/hectare. It is well known that the closer the vines are to each other, the more likely we will be prone to a Bonsai effect resulting in smaller bunches.

II. Row orientated at 1500 Hours allowing the sunrays to reach both sides of the rows morning and afternoons. A bunch of grapes that is 100% in contact with the sun will develop a better quality. They should transpire 100 to 300 times more than a bunch protected by its leaves. At 1500 hours, the sun is at its peak and vertical to the leaf this lets the grapes cool for 1 hour, which keeps them from burning.

III. Bud Selection: The most hardy and weakest are excluded during bud bursting. Without selection, there could be an interval in maturity between hardier and weaker vine-shoots from one grape to the other, ranging from one hour to several days.

IV. Selecting 5 to 6 bunches per vine and one bunch per vine-shoot (one vine-shoot can produce up to 2 to 2 1/2 bunches).

V. Thinning out the leaves systematically 3 times:

- June: thinning out East side

- July: thinning out West side

- August: remove 10 cm above the grapes on both sides.

VI. The two first thinning outs let the grapes get used to the hardship of the sun, the last thinning-out in August slightly reduces the alcohol level by reducing the photosynthesis and the sugar production.

VII. Calibration of the grapes in 3 checks.

During the last check, all the bunches must be shaped to obtain the same weight.

VIII. The bunches are checked one by one three weeks prior to harvest to make sure that none of the grapes are damaged or late (maturity).

In total, 9 to 10 supplementary checks are made throughout the whole vineyard.

IX. Control: Each row is marked by the person in charge (28 to 30 persons employed in the vines from April to September). Points are given to each row. Each terroir has a pre-determined grape yield.

X. No grape yield per hectare. This notion applied by the INAO and various control organisations is, according to Alain Brumont totally outdated and is of no subsequence. Indeed, with a 50 hl/ha yield, we may find bunches of 1 kg or 25 bunches depending on density. At Brumont, we prefer talking in grams per bunch (120 to 300 g) and in kilos per vine per terroir.

XI. Hand harvested in crates of one layer for the high quality vintages.

Simple isn't it!

3rd November 2011. A few months ago I mentioned Mandion, the temple to the art of the Patissier that's a few minutes away in Anglet. In fact, it's somewhere we rarely go on foot and I noticed as we passed by the other day in the car that the famous shop front now sports the name of Henriet, a well known patissier from Biarritz.

With Christmas coming up over the horizon (who said that!), if you fancy trying something different this year, this is what the French will be tucking into - la bûche au chocolat.. here's the chief pastry chef from Mandion (no expense spared on this blog!) to show you how to make the perfect bûche au chocolat. This will blow the rust off that French you haven't spoken in years! No matter, he's listed the ingredients for you and a careful watch of the video should fill in all the gaps.
Personally, I  find these things a bit sickly sweet.. but if you have never tried one before, here's your chance. The chef makes it all look suspiciously easy.

Having made the mistake of mentioning Christmas about 6 weeks too early, I began thinking about wine. I must see if I can find somewhere that stocks Château Bouscassé..