Wednesday, 21 November 2012

198. Post card from the Pays Basque

21st November 2012. Another wodge of work has arrived in my intray - 27,000 words-worth of technical French-to-English translation - ouch! With a bit of luck I should finish it by Christmas. (this year!)

In the meantime, as winter approaches, I'm starting to get fixated on Stone's Original Green Ginger Wine which, so far, appears to be completely unobtainium down here in deepest south west France. It's an absolutely essential ingredient for one of our all-time favourite drinks. Mixed 50/50 with whisky it makes a Whisky Mac - the perfect winter's drink on a dark night. 

What kind of whisky I hear you ask? A quick google search reveals that some people advocate using a Single Malt.. <sharp intake of breath!> I'm afraid that here at Piperade Towers that would be classed as Class 1 heresy. Also some people are recommending ginger wine to whisky ratios of 5:1.. More heresy! The right way (ie, my way!☺) to mix a Whisky Mac is to pour a finger or two of your blended Scotch whisky of choice, along with an equal measure of Stone's Ginger Wine, into your favourite whisky glass. Note: no ice, repeat, no ice. And that's all there is to it. No slice of lemon, maraschino cherry, salt or sugar around the rim, & definitely no cracked/shaved ice or ice cubes. The only drink better than a Whisky Mac is a second one.☺ If anyone knows of a supplier of Stone's Ginger Wine in the Pays Basque, I'd love to hear from you. 

On one of our recent shopping trips to Spain I spotted a bottle of Drambuie. Substituting this for Ginger Wine and mixed with blended whisky in the same proportions as described above, it becomes a Rusty Nail.. One of these should be enough to convince you that you're enjoying life too much. Here's the 'official' recipe from the International Bartenders Association for a Rusty Nail that, to me, makes the mistake of over-cooling the drink to the point where most of the taste is lost. Here it is:
First fill a 16oz glass with crushed ice until it is overflowing. Pour in 5 parts Drambuie and 9 parts Scotch. Stir gently, as to not bruise the ice. Keep stirring until a thick frost develops on the side of the glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. Serve.
This must make for a teeth-crackingly cold drink. Why? Take my advice and junk the ice. It's up to you though. I'm still trying to figure out what "bruising the ice" means?

Right - pin back your ears - here's a programme about the Pays Basque that was broadcast a few weeks ago. If your French isn't up to following it, just tune him out and enjoy the images:
The programme lasts for 1½hours so pour yourself a Whisky Mac and relax! Again, best in full screen. Watch out for the giant Belharra wave at 0.31:10..

24th November 2012. Went down to the river this morning and had an outing in a mixed IV. We'd been going for about 3-4km and we'd stopped to take off our warm-up tops when someone in the boat drew our attention to a deer that was calmly swimming across the river (that was around 30m wide at this point) about 10m in front of us. It disappeared into a small tributary and about a minute later a once-golden cocker spaniel - now very muddy - appeared on the bank, clearly hot on the trail of the deer. Barking for all his worth - all teeth and trousers - he sniffed his way down to the waterline before deciding not to follow the deer across the river. I didn't know that deer could swim. 10 out of 10 to the deer!  

25th November 2012. I took Chibby, our 11 year old English cocker spaniel, down to the beach at Anglet this morning and I was stopped by a family who had a lively 6 year cocker spaniel bitch with them. They wanted to know if I'd be interested in the two of them breeding.

Why is it only the dog that gets these offers?!☺

I've mentioned previously that my father was a pianist - and so we all grew up in a house full of music. Every now and again I come across a piece that he used to play. This is one of those:
And this is another:
On ARTE (a Franco-German TV channel) at lunchtime today there was a well made documentary about the Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay (west coast of Scotland). The film captured the essence of life on a remote island and the whisky making process.. to the extent that we both felt like making an immediate visit there (well, I did at any rate!). Sit back and enjoy the programme with its wonderful images of Scotland:  
Here's a look at breathtakingly beautiful Islay as seen through the lens of a French film crew..
28th November 2012. It's been hosing down with rain here for the last couple of days and so the dog has been confined to the garden. Tonight, however, there was a break in the rain so I took him out for a proper walk and I noticed that the Christmas lights have been put up. (that means that Tesco in the UK will have Easter Eggs on display!)

1st December 2012. Last night it was the rowing club's bash at Tipi-Tapa, a bar in an old casemate (former cannon emplacement) set into the historic ramparts that surround Bayonne. As it was only a ten minute walk we decided to go on foot - taking a short cut through a large parking area where a circus has been running for the last few days. We picked our way in the dark around the Big Top and through a parking area for some of the circus vehicles. As we were walking past a long articulated trailer, I felt as if someone/something was looking at us in the gloom. Looking left, the trailer housed 4 large cages and I saw 4 pairs of black eyes watching us intently. There were 4 lions, each in its own cage.. only 4-5 yards away. There didn't seem to any evidence of security and I couldn't help but wonder how easy/difficult it would have been to have slipped the bolts on the cage doors.. 

This morning it was around -3°C but despite that I wended my way down to the clubhouse for a bracing sortie in the cold. The river was flowing swiftly seawards accompanied by what looked like steam that was rising off the surface. In the sea, this is known as sea smoke. The bridge down to the pontoon was sloping steeply on an outgoing tide and it was extremely slippy with ice. About ten stalwarts appeared but it soon became obvious that a sortie was not going to happen. 

For the past few weeks we've been entertained by the Autumn Internationals (Rugby!). Today, England were playing New Zealand - aka the All Blacks - the current World Champions. What a game..! I believe New Zealand were unbeaten in their last 20 Test matches - an astonishing record. This was the final game of the Autumn series and I imagine both teams were eager to end on a winning streak. For once, it all gelled for England and they ran out worthy 38-21 winners..

Here's this week's special offer - the whole of the England v New Zealand match with, for once, a totally unexpected - but very welcome -  win for the boys in white:

6th December 2012. I've been out of Greek coffee for some time now - the last consignment I bought tasted muddy and, while it filled a gap, it didn't have that special taste I enjoy. The other day I managed to find an online supplier in Marseille who stocked a brand I was unfamiliar with: Bravo. I ordered some and it's just arrived. I've made myself a cup and - slurp - now that is not bad at all. If I can't ever manage to find a stockist of my own favourite Greek-Cypriot coffee nirvana - Charalambous Golden Mocca (right) - well, then I guess Bravo will do v nicely.
7th December 2012. The last few days have seen heavy showers sweeping in from the Bay of Biscay - the shutters rattle a warning as the wind gusts and then the heavens open. Sometimes it's just a downpour, sometimes it's hail, occasionally there's thunder mixed up in it all. Tomorrow evening I'm off to watch the Bayonne - Wasps game. It's an evening kick-off - 9pm - fingers crossed the weather holds off.  

The Christmas market is now in full swing here.. lots of white painted chalets have suddenly appeared all over town. 

.. and where there's a Christmas market, you can guarantee that a flash mob won't be far behind!

8th December 2012. Down to the river this morning under threatening grey skies with the sky to the west looking particularly ominous. While we were all sorting ourselves out into crews, the rain started a steady downpour. A few minutes later it had stopped so we quickly put a IV out on the water and headed off upriver - each of us armed with a K-Way. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the rain started again so after a quick stop to don our waterproofs we carried on. It was very, very wet out there but I kept telling myself it's only water. It became just a question of ignoring it and getting on with the outing. Needless to say we were all glad to return to the pontoon and put the boat back on its rack. We were all wet through so an offer of a drink at a new wine bar - the stylish Au Bouchon Basque - across the road was a no-brainer! 
I'd not been in this place before and it was a new take on the old style zinc bar. I was really starting to feel the cold now so I ordered an armagnac. I've had a few armagnacs before and they can be quite fiery. This was the opposite - round on the tongue and with no sharp edges. I asked the chap behind the bar about it and he ended up by saying he'd let me have a bottle at cost price! He left shortly afterwards and as he went out he said no charge for the coffees that the other two had. It turned out that there was no charge for the armagnac either!! Definitely a place to return to! A review from the Sud Ouest here.☺        

Off to see the Bayonne-Wasps game tonight..! Let's hope the rain keeps off.

9th December 2012.  We went out for lunch in Ascain today and driving there was a real pleasure - it was cold outside but with a dazzlingly blue sky, bright sunshine and as we neared the mountains, most of the trees still had their leaves in all shades from green, yellow, russet and copper.. The whitewashed Basque houses reflected the sunlight and it was another of those moments when we couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Arriving at Ascain at midday, we stopped first at the Hotel du Parc to book a table for 12.30 while we walked the pooch around the village we know so well. We settled for the menu saveur de l'automne - which started with an omelette aux cepes, followed by the salmis de palombes sauce grand veneur. This was eased on its way with the aid of a bottle of Irouléguy Gorri d'Ansa. After coffee, we bumbled the few kilometres into St Jean de Luz for a walk and a sit in the sunshine. Aah, la vie est belle!    
19th December 2012. Been slaving away (more than 12 hrs a day) at this latest piece of translation work and I finished the first pass through it over the weekend. What a relief that was! I'm now going through it a second time to pick up stray typos etc.. 

I walked into town at lunchtime yesterday to post one or two cards and on the way back it was so warm we could have had lunch outside.. think it was ~17°C. With this weather it's hard to believe Christmas is less than a week away! 

Greetings to all from a snow-free Bayonne in the Pays Basque - I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas with family and friends.
20th December 2012. We're holding an impromptu regatta down at the club on Saturday.. The calling notice for it only came out at the start of the week and I found myself signing up for it. It's open to clubs from Aquitaine and it's for IVs and VIIIs over a 1000m course. The club is putting out three VIIIs - two octuples (VIII scullers) and one VIII set up for rowing (ie, one oar instead of two sculls). I found my name down to row in the "serious" VIII. Hopefully, 1000 metres isn't long enough to inflict any lasting damage! I haven't rowed for months.. it's all been sculling. Should be interesting! Apparently the temp is going to be up around 20°C at the weekend..☺

Here we are heading up river to the start:
And here are a couple of shots taken during the races (I'm in the leading VIII somewhere!):
23rd December 2012. It's hard to believe but it's 24° here as we speak.. Phew!
24th December 2012. While I prepare to do serious battle with Madame's cooking over the next few days, you could do a lot worse than watching these stunningly beautiful  images of the lush countryside of the Pays Basque (from Michel Neuwels' brilliant photo-reportage blog Voyage au Pays Basque). Best enjoyed in the highest definition your PC will support and full screen:

The Chambre d'Hôte that's featured above from 00:49 to 01:26 is here.  

25th December 2012. The motto for today is:
Liberté, Egalité, Poulet!
Happy Christmas to all, wherever you are..!

30th December 2012. Biarritz has been staging its annual light show - Biarritz s'habille de lumières - over the Christmas period. Unfortunately we both picked a flu-type bug just prior to Christmas so we haven't been able to get out much. What do you think?

Well, that's all for 2012 folks.. see you next year!

Monday, 12 November 2012

197. Days of wine and roses

8th November 2012. We decided to have lunch out in Bayonne yesterday and we had in mind a place on the banks of the Nive. It was so warm we found a table outside and sat out there in the dazzling sunshine - I had to take my jacket off. We'd had pizzas here before and they were comparable to ones we'd enjoyed in Italy - so we ordered and leaned back, savouring the November day with the help of a carafe of red wine. Looking down, fat grey mullet were holding station easily against the gentle current with lazy flicks of their tails as they waited for any stray offerings from above. After the pizzas, we had pain perdu with ice cream.. followed by coffee. Occasionally we contemplate living up in the mountains in the Jura but then we'd never have days like these. Ernest Dowson said it best:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Slowly, the approach of Christmas is felt. It does seem strange to be thinking of setting one's mind in seasonal mode amid sunny blue skies but we've already ordered Christmas cards from the UK. Sending Christmas cards in France - or indeed greetings cards of most kinds - is not as widespread a practice as it is across the Channel. Here, people are accustomed to send each other New Year cards instead  - usually in the first few weeks of January - so the few card shops there are here stock a limited choice of Christmas cards.  

Yesterday I noticed a small group of army officers in combat clothing from the Special Forces barracks across the river standing in front of the War Memorial in Bayonne finalising the detailed planning for the Armistice parade on Sunday. I always try and attend this if I'm able. There's something about the Marseillaise when it's played by trumpets accompanied by the dry rattle of sidedrums that stands my hair on end and raises goose bumps.

12th November 2012. Went down to the river this morning - apparently there's a Monday morning group who go out then. There were a whole lot of new faces there - ones who don't do Saturday mornings. Went out in a coxless IV - I was stroke - and we took it up the river in brilliant sunshine. Apart from the blazing yellows and reds of the trees, it was hard to believe that it was November. Coming back, our wake was gilded by the low sun - absolutely perfect. We did about 11km.

My Banjo for Dummies book arrived this morning - I've been struggling with the 5 string banjo for a while and I think this book might just hold the answer. Fingers crossed! (Hey - maybe that's what I've been doing wrong!)

Banjo players appear to be the butt of jokes - see here for details.

What have I started..??!!    

18th November 2012. Hard to believe that Christmas is next month. We've been incredibly fortunate with the weather in November - it was 24°C on Friday. One November a couple of years ago, we had rain every day for a month so Nature's largesse this time around is very welcome. Had a memorable outing on the river yesterday - with the mild autumn weather there was a large turnout and we were able to put 2 VIIIs and 3 IVs out on the water. In addition, I was paired with a very fit 'regular' (half my age!) in a double sculler and despite all the confusion of boats and people we managed to slip away without getting caught up and delayed in all the hurly-burly - which is not always easy. There was a strong seawards current running as we headed off up-river. I was 'stroke' and right from the start the boat was balanced and it felt good. It wasn't long before all the other boats disappeared from sight as we found a good rhythm. We had a quick stop to remove our warm-up tops and then we set to the task. The boat ran straight and it was soon singing with the stern buried in our bubbling wake. We reached the turn around point and had a drink of water with no sign of any of the other boats. Heading back downstream again, the boat really flew and it wasn't long before we passed the others who were still labouring up-river. We finished with a sprint and all too soon we were back at the 'garage' (clubhouse) after a non-stop row feeling very pleased with ourselves. A very enjoyable 14kms.

Here's an atmospheric shot of a sculler enjoying an evening out on the upper reaches of the Nive

At the end of the month, the Loisirs Section of the club is planning another apéro evening at Tipi-Tapa - a peña (bar) in a casemate set into Vauban's ramparts that encircle Bayonne. We had one here earlier in the year and it was v enjoyable.. once we'd found it! It wasn't just drinks - this being France, there were tables laden with charcuterie, cheeses, bread and other bits and pieces. 

I don't know if peñas are allowed elsewhere in France but here it seems that just about anyone can open up a temporary bar. This relaxed attitude towards the serving of alcohol is in stark contrast with the highly regulated apparatus of obtaining and keeping a drinks licence in the UK. I'm sure the UK Home Office would throw a major wobbly if they were to witness the number of bars that proliferate during the Fêtes de Bayonne for example. And yet, in 5 years here, I've yet to see anyone staggering and/or lurching through the streets here. It's not well-considered to be seen to be "off your head" here, unlike the UK where getting "completely relaxed" is a regular weekly occurrence for an increasing number. As I've said before, northern Europeans have a different attitude to alcohol compared to those in the south, where a natural joie de vivre lies close to the surface. Unlike us more buttoned up northerners, here in the south they need little in the way of artificial encouragement for it to emerge. As the sole representative of northern Europe at the club, I will be doing my best to consume avec modération!
Here's Joe Dassin with an old favourite:

Galerie Vivienne
Passage du
The clip above reminded me that I mentioned Paris a few posts ago - remember? (Post 188) Well, if you ever do decide to go there, after you've seen all the sights, here's a little-known suggestion for you to tuck away in your hip pocket. Paris has a number of covered shopping arcades that are home to an eclectic range of small shops. There's a guide to them here and they are a perfect way of spending a rainy afternoon. (quiet in the cheap seats!☺) These arcades are home to some genuinely interesting shops - and it's not often you'll hear me say that! Specialist bookshops, antique maps, prints, old clock shops, intimate cafés, musical instruments, restorers, curios, objets d'art, the list is endless. (NB: Best in full screen and 1080p HD!)

By the way, if you would like to add a comment about how reading this blog has been a life-changing experience for you (dream on!☺) then  click here, scroll down and give vent to your views (all in a good cause!)  Phrases such as "Laugh? I almost did.." and "Be still my aching sides" won't get used I'm afraid..☺ 

Friday, 2 November 2012

196. Spanish slippers of Spanish leather *

* with apologies to Bob Dylan for the song he almost wrote! 
Avenida de la Libertad, San Sebastian
1st November 2012. A few days ago we staged a lightning raid on a shoe shop at San Sebastian. I've been wearing a pair of Lands End slippers for the last few years and I've comprehensively worn them out. Although Lands End offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee on all their products I decided to call the vet in to have them humanely put down. The problem is my feet are generously dimensioned and here in the Pays Basque - as elsewhere in France - shoe sizes generally top out at 44-45 - which isn't much use to your correspondent. Without going into embarrassing detail, I need slightly more than that. Luckily, we'd previously found a shop in San Sebastian that caters for amply configured feet such as mine and so off we scooted. We told the lady what I wanted and she disappeared for a minute or two before returning with a pair of leather slippers (made in Bilbao - not, for once, in China) that fitted like a - I almost wrote like a glove - but they fitted as though made to measure. Perfick!

Last week we discovered that Miremont, the legendary patisserie in Biarritz, had another outlet at the back of its building tucked away in the corner of the Place Bellevue facing the sea. What's more, it had tables outside. The significance of this for us is we've seldom been able to use the Miremont as we invariably have the dog with us and, unusually for France, he's not allowed in the café. Having discovered this new terrace by accident the day before, it seemed a good idea to give it a test drive while the weather was still suitable for sitting outside. All I can say is that cakes in the Miremont are pretty special. Highly recommended.    

Richard Anthony enjoyed some success in the UK in the sixties. Here's one of his I haven't heard in years..

Here's another great French singer from the 60s..

Aah.. nostalgia ain't what it used to be..!

Last weekend we were up in Nantes. More to come on this.

5th November 2012. The last time we drove up to Nantes we had the old car without GPS and finding our way around the busy ring road and maze of avenues wasn't easy. Last weekend, we could relax and just follow the instructions - and this took the stress out of arriving in the dense, fast flowing rush hour traffic. I remembered the Pont de Cheviré from our last visit - there's something about crossing this immense high level bridge over the Loire with no visible means of support that makes me glad to get off it. Looking sideways while at its highest point always induces vertigo in me..

One thing we noticed immediately was the change in temperature. Two days earlier, we'd experienced temperatures of 26° at St Jean de Luz and people were still sunbathing and swimming. At Nantes, the skies were grey and a cold wind cut through us softies from the south west! Brrr-rrr!

Our thoughtful friends had put together a fascinating programme for the whole weekend and so it was that on Friday evening we started out at O Deck, a restaurant boat moored on the Loire - and, coincidentally, just across the river was the floodlit "Belem" - the 3 masted barque that had visited Bayonne in June.

My enduring memory of that evening however will be the chilly blast that greeted us as we emerged from the boat into the wide open spaces of the now disused shipyards - the Chantiers Navales - that sent us hurrying back to the car.

We were to return to the former shipyards during the course of the weekend as the city has brought life back into this heartland area in the most imaginative fashion.

Saturday morning saw us exploring the Marché aux Puces (Flea market) where 1001 artefacts, objets d'art, useless curios, posters, musical instruments and other assorted detritus of the previous century were being picked over by some hardy souls. I was dismayed to find that Beatles LPs now qualify as antiques - I can't tell you how aging that made me feel!

We were invited in the evening to a large function where we danced for the first time in a loong time.. Danced? Well, I did my patented shuffle around the dance floor. We wound it all up sometime after 2am. A great night! I'd spent part of the evening behind the bar serving drinks - never a good move as Sunday saw me paying heavily for it - ouch!

Sunday morning we were back at the former shipyard to experience Les Machines.. These are a collection of wildly phantasmagorical creations that are made up from some extremely clever hydraulics, electronics and articulations. A whole group of us went for a trip on the Elephant.. this video explains it far better than I can:
It wheezed and groaned and trumpeted its way slowly around the old shipyard, giving us time to appreciate all the real quirkiness of its construction - its huge flapping leather ears, the steam and water squirted out of its trunk, the curlicued metal interior of the beast that owed much to Jules Verne (who happened to be born in Nantes).

After this amazing ride, we walked through town - which I have to say was far more extensive than I'd remembered from a previous visit - to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany (NB. not Britney!) where we had a splendid private lunch of galettes eased down with some local cider in an awe-inspiring massively beamed chamber with 9ft thick walls. I could get used to that! However, back to Nantes - I was surprised to find that the inhabitants of metropolitan Nantes number some 800,000..! This makes it the 6th largest city in  France. Time magazine has described it as "the most liveable city in Europe". Personally, I think that's stretching the point a little but nonetheless it is a very pleasant city indeed. Here's another writer who's equally complimentary about Nantes. We walked through the Passage Pommeraye - an elegant 19th century arcade - that, unfortunately, was full of Saturday afternoon shoppers so it became a flying visit. (sigh of relief heard from my back pocket!)
Here's a panoramic image of the former shipyards in Nantes (if you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll spot the "Belem" moored on the left):
We walked by La Cigale in the centre - a grand old brasserie that was established in 1895 and which has been on my "must visit" list for some time - but that will have to wait for another day. I'm not a paid-up member of the Jane Birkin fan club by any means but she does do a good job here of describing La Cigale - her favourite restaurant. 

We climbed aboard a sightseeing boat for a trip up the river Erdre - a tributary of the Loire with which I must admit I was completely unfamiliar.
The river turned out to be quite broad and I counted three rowing clubs as we headed upstream escorted by twenty or so cormorants who seemed curiously attracted by our boat. The banks were dotted with châteaux of varying shapes and sizes - any of which I would have been happy to hang my hat in.  
Château de la Gascherie
It was a most enjoyable trip that lasted near enough 2 hours. We all decided to walk to the Tour de Bretagne - an office tower in the centre of Nantes almost 500ft high - for a farewell drink at the top while watching the sunset.
And finally..

We set off for home on Monday mid-morning and, to save cooking when we arrived home, we thought we'd stop off somewhere for lunch. We settled on Fontenay-le-Comte as it wouldn't involve too much of a diversion. 

There we found a Logis hotel with three "spoilt for choice" menus - we opted for the 23.90€ menu. Luckily we arrived there just after 12 and as we sat down, the restaurant quickly filled up with a more or less constant stream of new arrivals behind us. All this on a Monday lunchtime too! 

For starters, Madame had Crème de Céleri aux Noix de Saint Jacques et sa pointe de muscade (a sturdy cream of celery soup garnished with scallops while I went for the Vendée côté Mer (huîtres, crevettes et mini brochette de St-Jacques) (oyster, prawns and a mini-brochette of scallops). As we'd been eating fish all weekend we both had the Pavé de cœur de rumsteak poélé, réduction de Marie du Fou et galette comtoise. This turned out to be a tender rump steak served with a reduced wine sauce. We both gave it top marks. A glass of a velvety Côte de Blaye each rounded everything off. The only downside was the décor - a bit too cold and modern for us (lime green, belovèd of French interior decorators, was everywhere) Still, you can't eat the wallpaper! Definitely worth a detour for if you ever find yourself in the Vendée.

In looking for video clips about the Passage Pommeraye, I came across this one of Prague and Bohemia - which is where we're off to next spring. Looking forward to that!