Monday, 25 July 2011

158. Bayonne goes bananas!

25th July 2011. If you'd like to watch the start of the Fêtes de Bayonne this coming Wednesday evening, don't forget to make a note that it starts at 10pm Pays Basque time (9pm in the UK, 4pm EDT in the US). If you're unsure what time that is wherever you are - this link has a time countdown to the start. You can then work out when to drop everything you're doing to watch the madness!

Stop Press! To see the video link direct from the Place de la Liberté in full screen, click here and then click on the small blue & white symbol on the video link under the umbrellas on the lower right of the picture.. 
This clip from last year will give you a flavour of the event..

They like their fireworks noisy down here - this is a shortened version of last year's display filmed from across the river - which is the best place to watch them from in my opinion. The first year we were almost underneath them and it was painful!
Confession time: I must admit that, on the basis of her turbulent private life and her slightly bizarre appearance, I'd always pre-judged Amy Winehouse as a hyped-up media creature - without ever having heard her sing. I was wrong. It's clear from this clip she had a remarkable voice and a lot of talent.. I must listen to more of her.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

157. Foreign food in the Pays Basque

Place de la Liberté
22nd July 2011. Back from a walk through town with the dawg.. Stopped for a coffee at the café on the Place de la Liberté outside the Town Hall and noticed that the former shoe shop across the road on the corner of the Rue du Port-Neuf (Newport Street doesn't have the same ring to it does it?) is being revamped. It's receiving the beauty treatment - the stonework has been cleaned up so it's now gleaming white. There's a sign up outside showing that it will be a Sushi shop. Not convinced that will work here - this is Basque heartland and restaurants serving foreign food (ie, anything that's not Basque!) are in short supply. Certainly there's nothing like the profusion of foreign restaurants here that you might see across the channel. No Greek or Indian for example - and I'm not sure there's even an Italian. There are a couple of Chinese across the river in St Esprit. Maybe this Sushi shop is aimed at people working in town.

23rd July 2011. Out in an all-mec VIII this morning - it's a fairly new carbon fibre boat that's a pleasure to row in.. We did 18km (Running total: 888km) and all of it was enjoyable. We rowed a mixture of starts and sprints (series of 10 and 20 at full pressure), followed by light and firm. Someone pointed out a cyclist riding by on the riverside path - it was explained to me that he'd ridden (on a bike) from Paris to Beijing for the last Olympics. Took him 6 months apparently. Next year he's doing Beijing - London. We had an impromptu apéro after the outing and the Johnny Walker Black Label came out.. As I'd never tried this before in my life (true!), I had to have a second one to confirm my view - this is one good whisky.. (but, as my Scottish neighbour used to say, "There's nae sich thing as a bad whusky..")

24th July 2011. A long time ago I was told in all seriousness by a Frenchman that whisky was made from potatoes and hence couldn't seriously be compared with cognac distilled from wine (from the more noble grape). I heard a similar misconception yesterday. Talking to Y at the club, the subject of English cooking came up and she described her idea of  English food as "boiled beef with mint"! I think she was half-joking but clearly the persistent legacy of the former barren years of English cooking is still around and hasn't totally been erased. I've heard this before - although the quote has usually been the "boiled beef and carrots" one.
I've never been offered "boiled beef" in my life - let alone tasted it. Maybe it dates back to what sailors would have been fed in the days of sail..? That would be my guess. As for the "mint" part - I think she's confusing that with the practice of eating roast lamb accompanied by mint sauce. Now that I have had - and many times. No apologies necessary!

It's one of the great English dishes - roast leg of Welsh lamb (gigot), with mint sauce, new potatoes and either fresh garden peas (petit pois) or green beans (haricots verts). That's a dish that can stand comparison with any other. The taste of Easter.. For the ultimate nostalgia trip, try listening to this old signature tune while a leg of lamb is roasting away in the oven.. This will soon have you swallowing large lumps! Click on this link and under Contents at the left, click on "Take It From Here", then scroll down until you see the old fashioned radio marked "Another Audio clip". (Here's a complete "Take It From Here") Here's another classic - this one reminds me of listening to the BBC World Service news on HF fading in and out  in the wee small hours while flying red-eyed way up north of the Faroes in my previous life.

My mouth's watering watching this next video..

It took a while for my dear old Mum to get used to the French custom of studding a gigot with slivers of garlic - I think she initially thought that was heresy! Or the culinary equivalent thereof.. In my opinion, roast lamb is best served rare.. ie, very pink verging on red. I grew up eating it what I now know to be over-cooked - brown, dry and eminently chewable.. (Remember Phillips Stick-a-soles?) My Dad liked his meat cooked beyond the point of possible resurrection! Plus another 5 minutes. This (below) is my idea of how roast lamb should look:

Here's how it's cooked in France. And here's a recipe for Marinated Lamb (believe it's a Jamie Oliver one).. I should add this is untried at Pipérade Towers.

1 leg lamb, boned
1 large bunch mint, roughly chopped
1 large bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) natural yoghurt
1/2 (14-ounce/400 gram) can chickpeas, drained and mashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, juiced

Tray Roasted Vegetables:
Baby carrots
Quartered fennel, with its own leafy tops
Quartered red onions
Whole baby turnips
Butternut squash, cut into chunks
Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and halved
1/2 (14-ounce/400 gram) can chick peas, drained
Ground cumin
Coriander seeds
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lamb: Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
Crush the coriander and mint together and mix with the yoghurt, garlic, and seasoning. Reserve half to use as a sauce once the lamb is cooked.
Score the lamb pieces, season with the salt and pepper and mix with half the marinade and the chickpeas, so it is all coated.
Transfer the marinade and lamb to a plastic bag and seal. Place in the refrigerator until required.
To cook, place the meat directly on the oven shelf above the tray of vegetables for approximately 45 minutes.
Vegetables: Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Place all the vegetables in a roasting tray, add the chickpeas, cumin, coriander seeds, nutmeg, sea salt, pepper, and olive oil and toss together.
Cook in the preheated oven for 20 minutes then remove the foil and continue roasting for 20 to 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender and golden.
Serves 10 to 12.
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes

What a great drive by Lewis Hamilton to win the German Grand Prix..! If only McLaren could find some more speed in qualifying. Well done Lewis and the team.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

156. The Fêtes de Bayonne - the clock's ticking..

16th July 2011. Things here at Pipérade Towers are returning to normal today after Madame's brother O and his wife F left us this morning after visiting us for a few days. They took us for lunch yesterday to our favourite restaurant in that village tucked up against the Pyrenees - the very one we used to come to every summer. They enjoyed it as much as we did.. Last night, we ate out on the terrace here and stayed out there till late.

After saying goodbye to O & F, I went down to the river this sunny morning for what turned out to be a hard outing in a coxless IV. We did 14km (Running total: 870km) and I have to say I felt every one of them this morning. I know - I have only myself to blame..! Must make another trip to the bottle bank now - say no more..!

I was talking to one of the guys at the club a few weeks back about coffee and I mentioned that I liked Greek coffee but I was unable to find a local supplier. He told me that a friend of his travels regularly to Athens and if I told him what brand I was looking for, he'd pass the word on. Well, I'd all but forgotten about this conversation until this morning when he delved into his sports bag and presented me with a large packet of Loumidis "Papagalos" coffee.. That should keep me going for a good while. Many thanks Aïtor!

The brand I was really looking for is Charalambous "Golden Mocca", a Greek-Cypriot coffee that, in my view, has slightly more depth of flavour than "Papagalos" plus it has an indefinable hint of something slightly exotic - cardamom perhaps? If anyone knows of a supplier in France, please let me know by a comment at the end of this post.. Σας ευχαριστώ πολύ εκ των προτέρων.. 

With just 10 days to go before the start of the Fêtes de Bayonne (27th July => 31st July), wire barriers are being erected all over town on roundabouts, central reservations - in fact anywhere where a car could be parked or a tent set up. With well over a million visitors expected to our town of 40,000, there simply aren't enough beds available and many camp at sites provided by the council around town. Sleeping in cars is also a favourite. If you have no idea what the Fêtes de Bayonne are about, click on this link and look at some of the videos there..

17th July 2011. There was some welcome rain during the night. The patch of grass (formerly known as the lawn) at the back of the house took a real hammering when we had temperatures of 39°C (102°F) a few weeks ago and sections of it were completely toasted and burnt. I thought it might never recover but all is not lost though - I've been watering it most evenings and we might just be able to save it. There's more rain forecast for this week too.

I was deleting some old files on my PC when I found this clip gathering dust somewhere on my hard disk.. the famous Bogart "hill of beans" speech from the closing scene of "Casablanca"..
Call me a sentimental old fool but who didn't feel a frisson* during that..?

* a shiver..

19th July 2011. The forecast for the south west for the last few days has had us sat here under a deluge of rain. Well, they're partially right. We have had rain but it's mostly been overnight and only for a few minutes. I woke up early on Sunday morning, Monday morning and this morning to the sound of the house going through a car wash - at least, that's what it sounded like. However, once the rain has blown through, it soon reverts to sunshine again. As I sit here now looking out of the window, the skies have cleared and the pavements are drying off quickly under the hot sun. In fact, the forecast for the Côte Basque is invariably wrong. We are influenced by the sea and the mountains here so when the forecaster (the ever-fragrant Évelyne Dhéliat!) says that it's going to rain in the south west, she might be right for Aquitaine (the region) but not for here. 

Went down to the river this evening intending to have an outing in a pair or a IV but there was a strong westerly blowing right up the river and the incoming clouds were heavy with rain - so yes, we wimped out! I'd not long been home when there was a sudden gust of wind followed by a swirling torrent of rain that lashed down for a few minutes. Glad I wasn't on the river! Pity those poor souls who are down here camping..

20th July 2011. More rain this morning.. at this rate the green bit at the back of the house will be doing lawn impressions again before long. You have to feel some sympathy for those camping down here or on holiday with kids..? What do you do? I remember those family holidays of long ago spent squelching around various places in Wales in the rain - or eating sandwiches in the car watching rain running down steamed-up windows..   

21st July 2011. Here's a film that slipped under my radar.. I must try and search it out:

Thursday, 7 July 2011

155. San Fermin - Hemingway's legacy..

7th July 2011. In Pamplona, down in the Spanish Basque country, it's San Fermin time again!! ("What..?") Yes, it's that time of the year when thousands of normally sane chartered accountants and other unlikely heroes from all over the world head towards Pamplona, just across the border in the Spanish Basque country to prove that their manliness extends beyond a remarkable ability to crush a paper cup or to flick a rubber band at the lovely Miss Rochester in Overdue Accounts (Unpaid). They try and achieve all this by running through the streets of Pamplona with their butt cheeks pressed hard together - a laudable feat in itself! - closely followed by several tons of prime beef - in the form of half a dozen Spanish fighting bulls - that just happen to be moving at the gallop a few steps behind and that are just itching to slip a stray and extremely sharp horn into the nearest pair of trousers they can find.. or to stomp on anything that moves within range.

This guy never expected to sing soprano again.. (let alone being able to hold high C for over 10 seconds!)

This one below doesn't look good.. he's a definite candidate for the "You can run but you can't hide" competition. He's got about ½ second to decide what his options are.. and he's dropped his rolled-up newspaper.. Meanwhile the bulls look like they've been practising this move all winter!

I don't know about you but I'd say that this is about as up close and personal as you'd ever want to be to a fighting bull. I think our man here would agree as well that tapping the bull on the nose with that rolled-up newspaper was not the best idea he ever had! (and hey! I thought LL Bean said their T shirts were rugged!)

Hemingway (in the white trousers)
Hemingway put the Fête de San Fermin on the world map of the imagination with his stunning first novel The Sun Also Rises (published as Fiesta in the UK). Based on a trip he'd recently made to the fiesta at Pamplona in 1926 with a group of Anglo-American friends, it can't be bettered as an introduction to Hemingway's oeuvre. Even though the young bull (right) has its horns padded, it would take considerable courage (and perhaps a drink or three) to persuade anyone with an ounce of self-preservation to step in front of one as Hemingway did here. Yes, he can be criticised but before you do - first try and persuade your legs to jump over the barrier into that ring.. Not so easy now is it?
Another novel down the tubes! I'll definitely start writing tomorrow..
This is what I like to see - a porky guy who suddenly discovers that - hell yes! - a sub-10 second 100 metre dash is well within his capabilities! Who are you calling fatso!
I reckon releasing a fighting bull behind the sprinters should be allowed as an experiment at the London Olympics next year.. Think we'd see the first 8 second 100 metres!

This clip will give you a taster of the madness that descends upon the town for about 5 days.
9th July 2011. A very rewarding row this morning.. in a wooden shell coxless IV. The boat was going so well we carried on as far as Villefranque without anyone asking when we were going to stop and turn around (always a good sign). Did 18km (Running total: 856km).

12th July 2011. Thinking about Hemingway while having a shave this morning, it struck me that, perhaps in order to avoid his writing impulse being desensitised by the prosaic nature of everyday life, he'd sought to experience strong sensations as often as he could. There has often been a suggestion made that he had a death wish - one that he consistently denied - but I think that the process of getting close to many of these sensations was inherently risky. He attended a number of wars, went big game hunting, drank copiously all his life, was serious about catching big sporting fish, was an aficionado of bull fighting, he enjoyed multiple marriages (but did they enjoy him?) and travelled widely. I imagine that an adventure loving lad like our man would have felt confined in the leafy suburbs of Oak Park, Illinois. Now I don't know if this is an original observation about his need for sensation - but it's the first time I've thought of it! I think today he'd be described as an adrenalin junkie..

13th July 2011. Sometime in the wee small hours we had another "the house is going through a car-wash" moment.. There was a white flash and a rumble of thunder - closely followed by the pooch jumping up on the bed (any excuse!) - and then the hiss of rain that in a few seconds turned into a steady roar for a good few minutes.