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..

Thursday, 6 October 2011

167. Indian summer in the Pays Basque

5th October 2011. Sorry for being a stranger lately but I've been busy with a large lump of work that's come my way. I've been sat here polishing the seat of my pants for the last few weeks poring over a couple of large technical dictionaries.. but as we're in a natural break of a few days I thought I'd try and keep you up to date with all the news that's fit to print from the Pays Basque. 

First of all, how about a quick burst of Edith Piaf as she gets to grips with Milord.. a 1959 hit for her, with the distinctive sound of that jangly street piano.
And while we're at it, it's been a long time - too long - since I've featured this next one - which is top of my list of music videos - straight from the Django Reinhardt festival in New York City. With such a group of virtuoso performers it's difficult to single out one but for me, the clarinettist is in a league of his own:

Boulevard Thiers
Bar Basque
6th October 2011. For the past few months I've been exchanging emails with Perry & Caroline (the friendly Anglo-Dutch couple behind Tiens!) - they live just to the east of Tarbes. They were taking a short break in the Pays Basque - renting a gîte at St Jean Pied de Port - and they'd struck lucky with the Indian summer that's been upon us for the last couple of weeks. We'd arranged to meet at - where else! - the Bar Basque (above right) in the Boulevard Thiers (above left) at St Jean de Luz. Despite not having met them face to face before - I'd only exchanged a few words over the phone with Perry - it soon felt as though our acquaintance stretched back much longer. A pity they live so far away. After our apéro, they were off to tackle a plateau de fruits de mer..  at Kaïku in what I call "Restaurant Strasse" - more usually known as Rue de la République (between the Place Louis XIV and the beach)
Now if you can just take a step backwards while I deal with this, I'll be back shortly..!

On the way home I noticed that the council has started the annual pruning of the platanes.. This always gives a stark look to the streets and is a reminder that the season is changing.
The Rugby World Cup.. ah yes.. My money's on Ireland. Sorry if anyone's offended!

8th October 2011. Up early this morning to watch the Wales Ireland game.. one of the best games of this RWC in my humble opinion. Ireland weren't allowed by Wales to play their game and the result was a great win for Wales.. 22-10. They looked very impressive indeed.

A hour later it was England's turn. Hmmm. France won a competitive match 19-12 but I think they'll struggle against the in-form Welsh. I don't think England started with their best XV.. But, based on my previous predictions, I wouldn't get too upset about that if you're a Bleu supporter! 

9th October 2011. The Rugby World cup is coming to the boil now.. this morning Australia surprised me by taking the semi-final spot ahead of South Africa.. while New Zealand predictably dispatched the Pumas. So one half of the draw sees a mighty Australia New Zealand battle while the other sees France taking on Wales. The problem for me is that if I'm watching a game I like to be able to root for one side against t' other. All Blacks vs Wallabies? I've never been a fan of All Black or Australian rugby - but the current Wallabies play with an invention and a freedom that's very watchable so I'll be packing down with them in any of the scrums. France vs Wales? That's more difficult as they're both the traditional enemy in rugby terms. I suppose I'd like to see France sent home early - with my money riding on the Welsh now to win the Webb-Ellis cup.. (if Ireland couldn't!) Bring the cup back to the UK - even if it would be to the Welsh part! I should add for any Welsh reading this that I'm 25% Welsh so be gentle with me!

10th October 2011. I was watching Télé Matin on France 2 this morning and one of the news items was that it would have been John Lennon's 71st birthday today. I must admit that the story of his astonishing rise from an unpromising start in an anonymous suburb to worldwide fame intrigues me still. It was just short of 50 years ago that he and his group exploded into global consciousness and the mention of his name on French TV this morning shows that his name still retains all the old power it had. For those of you who, like me, grew up in that era here's a film about his early years that explains much about his development into the person he became..   

12th October 2011. Yesterday we had a few hours in San Sebastian. Each time we go there I'm reminded just what a civilised town it is. It grows on me with each visit. There are squares with fountains, pedestrianised areas, wide pavements, elegant brown stone apartment buildings, some fascinating shops (what am I saying?!), friendly people and not forgetting La Concha.. the definitive bay with its great crescent-shaped expanse of yellow (nearly said golden!) sand. To my mind San Sebastian is as good as it gets. The bonus for us is that it's only a short 45 minute drive away - and parking isn't a problem.
15th October 2011. We headed off across the border into Spain yesterday for some essential shopping at Dancharia - so after picking up Madame in town where she'd been, I decided to take the old route that we used to take when we were in the gîte. It was a morning under a cloudless sky, the country roads were deserted and again I realised as we passed by our old gîte that 4 years had somehow passed by. The pale outline of La Rhune lay to the south rising above the silvery early morning haze with the endless jagged hills and mountains of the Pyrenees extending away to the east. After Ustaritz, we headed for Cambo before taking the turn off for Larressore (where traditional Makhilas are still being made as they always have been). It was through Larressore that the Comet Line established a new route for the escaping Allied airmen in WWII after it became too dangerous to use the St Jean de Luz/Ciboure/Urrugne route. Many escaping aircrew owe their freedom to the bravery shown by the people of Sutar (partic. the Restaurant Larre), Larressore, Espelette, Souraïde and Dancharia. I think it's fair to say that this development of the Comet Line escape route into Spain is not as well known as the original route. 
As we emerged onto the road for Espelette the broad expanse of the Pyrenees lay before us. The fields and trees glistened as the low bright sun picked up the early morning dew. A few blue grey clouds clung to the sides of the higher mountains. We reminded ourselves again what a stunning corner of France this is. Once through the picture postcard village of Espelette, we took a winding side road that took us up into the hills to Ainhoa (one of France's most beautiful villages) and then a short run down to the unmanned border and Dancharia. We had the roads to ourselves and the country was looking at its best with the trees just starting to turn russet greeny/brown - I should have had the camera with us.

On the return we stopped off at Espelette at Antton - the chocolatier.. (available online.. website in English here - just do it!) They make their own chocolate on the premises and the rich smell of chocolate is all-pervading. As we walked in, we were greeted by the two ladies who offered us some chocolate to taste.. You have as much chance of leaving empty handed here as you do when viewing puppies! All I can say is the chocolate doesn't disappoint.. far from it. I could taste its lingering richness all the way home. Worth remembering this address with Christmas in mind. We bought a bag of "La Ganache au Piment d'Espelette". This is dark chocolate with an inspired pinch of piment.. It's right up there with the best chocolate we've tasted. Madame's eyes glazed over when she tried some last night..

16th October 2011. What can I say about Wales.. A moment of madness allied with an arguably harsh refereeing decision saw Wales reduced to 14 men 20 minutes into the match with France after a fine attacking start. However, once they'd got used to the idea that 14 Welshmen would be more than enough to see off a lack-lustre French side they simply carried on where they'd left off. They took the game to France in fine style while the French XV seemed bereft of any coherent attacking ideas of their own. Wales scored the only try of the match with a fine effort by Mike Phillips - who'll be playing for Bayonne this next season.
The only French player to emerge with any credit was the truly classy Maxime Médard. If only the Welsh kicking game had been slightly more accurate they'd be in the final. They scored the only try of the game and I don't think France could have scored even if Wales had left the field. Final score 9-8 to France.

Still, you have to hand it to Les Bleus.. They've played poorly throughout this tournament (beating an even poorer England side by only a  converted try) and yet here they are in the final - having lost already to the All Blacks and Tonga.. I fully expect that either the All Blacks or the Aussies will administer a mighty stuffing to them next weekend. I wouldn't like to see a team that has played such undistinguished rugby walk away with the World Cup.

Yesterday evening I finished the latest instalment of work on my PC at ~6pm and I made a couple of drinks for Madame and her ever-so-'umble servant.. We sat on the terrace on a warm, still evening watching the light fade with a sangria and a wee whisky.. Ah, that felt good! So good in fact, we had another!

Pain aux raisins
There was an early burst of activity at Pipérade Towers this morning as I tried to squeeze in a few jobs before the All Blacks-Wallabies match (kick off at 10am). After a trip to the well-run council déchetterie on the banks of the Adour to dump some garden rubbish, I continued along the river bank for another km as far as the roundabout (above left) with the France-Asia supermarket (map here). Just across the roundabout is a baker - and it's here that, in my opinion, they make the best baguettes in Bayonne. They make all their own bread and cakes on the premises and their baguette tradition is always a pleasure to eat - a crispy crust and a good length. The real star of the show though is their pain aux raisins.. In addition to a baguette tradition, I bought a pain aux raisins this morning. I've eaten pain aux raisins the length and breadth of France and this was the best I've ever had.. Moist, light, buttery yellow, generously filled with raisins - exactly as they should be and at 0.93€ they're far cheaper than the bakers in the centre of Bayonne (1.25€!). Another 5 star recommendation. Driving back home along the river, the sun made an appearance and gilded the surface of the water. Another great picture if only I'd had my camera with me.. (Think there's a message here!)

I saw the first 50 minutes or so of the NZ - Australia match until it struck me that it was really unwatchable - all crash, bang, wallop - and I wasn't enjoying watching it so I switched off. It all reminded me of rugby league in the sixties - two lines of players facing each other and the interminable pick and go's, grinding out another yard of territory. Is it me? - but exactly what is it about the All Blacks and their boss-eyed supporters that makes them so peculiarly and so spectacularly unlovable? First, there's the increasingly bizarre 'Haka' which, frankly, I couldn't give a toss about even if it is supposedly representative of some ancient South Pacific cultural heritage but each year it evolves and gets choreographed to become (yawn..) 'more frightening'.

Here's the original Hand Jive with Johnny "Mr Lip Sync" Otis - with three ladies who could teach the All Blacks the right way to do the 'Haka'!
And here's the 1973 version - where the ABs look like a bunch of embarrassed blokes demonstrating the Macarena (having done the 5 minute course on the radio!). Notice that in those days that the 'Haka' was performed for the crowd..
And this is what it's become.. how can anyone take this seriously..?
I think their opponents should just leave the ABs to their willy-waving shtick and go for a stroll around the stadium, or wave to their loved ones at home, eat an ice cream or read the paper.. The notion that the opponents should respect the 'Haka' is laughable! I've never understood why the IRB have, over the years, allowed them to perpetuate this tired old bit of hokum.. which sends the message that the following 80 minutes aren't going to be so much as a sporting contest as open warfare. As far as I'm concerned, the ABs have always played a uniquely brutal brand of ultra-physical rugby - enlivened only by the home crowd giving vent to some imaginative singing: “All Blacks….. All Blacks….. All Blacks….. All Blacks….. All Blacks…" ad infinitum. I’d like to have seen an Australian  win.. (and it's not often you'll hear me say that!)

As for next Sunday's final, to be honest I don’t care who wins - France don't deserve it the way they've played so far - but then I don’t want the All Blacks to win either.. The classic case of two bald men fighting over a comb. Let's hope that France can raise their game, play some memorable rugby and then, who knows, anything might happen. Think I’ll be tidying my sock drawer and hoping for a northern hemisphere win..

Now - lean back, forget all about rugby, click on 'play' below, close your eyes and enjoy Chet Baker's version of 'Autumn leaves'..
before finishing up with this - from 'Chet Baker in Tokyo' - Almost Blue (no video - just the music):