Friday, 6 October 2017

248. The pup!

19th October. This is one of those songs that I've slowly became aware of.. (only 23 years after it was released!)

18th October. I've been listening to this Basque choir - and there's something in the distinctive timbre of their voices that puts me in mind of a Welsh male voice choir:
Years ago, I discovered the books of Garrison Keillor, an American author and humourist, who grew up in Minnesota. He had a regular slot on American national public radio for many years where he read the "News from Lake Wobegon" - a fictional lakeside community in rural Minnesota peopled with characters that quickly established themselves.. His gentle humour is very listenable to - and as each of his characters and locations take shape in your imagination, it becomes harder and harder to believe that they're all fictional. Take a load off, sit back and enjoy Lake Wobegon: 

If you enjoyed your first visit to Lake Wobegon, listen to more news from Lake Wobegon here

In doing a small DIY job yesterday, I was reminded forcibly of the immutable Laws of Home DIY. I thought I'd update the list and bring them all together:

1. There’s no such thing as a simple job.
2. If it isn’t broken, fix it until it is.
3. If the screw isn’t going in, use a bigger hammer.
4. The drill bit you want is the one that’s missing from the box.
5. Never be tempted to change the drill bit in your electric drill with the power on. (I'll tell you the story one day!)
6. Measure twice. Cut once. (This rule can be applied to many areas in Life)
7. The best tool is a mug of coffee. Look at the job often - thinking time is never wasted.
Three from Lesley:
8. Things thrown away will be required within the week. (So true!)
9. A dropped Allen key, nut, bolt or screw will always travel to the most inaccessible place.
10. As soon as you get your hands greasy you will develop an itchy nose or want to use the lavatory.
11. If you are in desperate need of one item to finish a job, the shops will be closed.
12. When the shop is finally open, the single item you want comes in a pack of six.
13. If it's your lucky day, and the shop sells the item you need in a single pack, they will have it in two sizes: too large and too small.
14. You've been saving something for 20 years knowing that one day you'll need it. When that day finally arrives, you can't remember where you left it. (happened to me yesterday!)
15. Never start a job on a Sunday afternoon.
16. You'll never find the thing you need until the day you don't need it.
17. Someone will have used the last bandage/band aid the day before you do involuntary finger surgery.
18. The only known supplier of the part you need closed down last weekend.
19. The most useless tool in your tool box is the wrong size Allen Key!
20. Superglue is a must for many DIY tasks - it is guaranteed to rapidly and permanently stick objects to things other than that intended.
21. Despite clearing up after a job and putting everything back on the right hook, in the right box, in the right place on the right shelf - things disappear.
22. If you have to remove twelve rusty nuts/screws/nails that have been untouched since the Spanish Civil War, eleven of them will unscrew/come out easily.
23. You have a couple of partitioned boxes neatly filled with every type and size of nail, screw and bolt known to mankind - except for the one you want.
24. You discover that the new lamp that you bought just before closing time on Saturday afternoon doesn't come with a light bulb (and this fact isn't mentioned on the box it came in). You then discover that it will only accept a new type of bulb - and none of your spares will fit.

We have a table on the terrace that stays outside all the year around. In winter, it's covered up to keep the rains off it. The top is made up of countless small tiles, all held in place by exterior grade mortar (right word?). We noticed that in one area the mortar had disappeared and a few tiles were loose. I used a powerful adhesive to glue the loose tiles back in place and then I set off to the big DIY shop a few minutes away to find a small pack of exterior grade grouting/mortar (you can hear what's coming can't you!). Imagine my surprise when after staring desperately at the shelves full of products that solved problems similar to, but not quite the same as, mine - the only one in stock that ticked all the boxes was of course big enough to grout half of Trafalgar Square! There was nothing for it but to buy the thing..

It was a spin-off of Portland cement and it absorbed a surprisingly large quantity of water in a container before it achieved the right consistency. I then spread it over the problem tiles, smoothed it into place with one of Madame's rubber kitchen spatulas (she was out!). I washed it thoroughly afterwards and somehow forgot to mention it to her when she came home.. One of my better DIY jobs. 

15th October. Down to the green behind the beach (Plage des Cavaliers, Anglet) this morning with the pup - and as there were no other dogs in sight, I decided the time was ripe to unclip him from his lead for the first time. Always a nerve-racking moment but I needn't have worried - he'd wander off a little to investigate a rogue leaf or similar before racing back to me. There was the continuous roar of a big sea running so we walked up to the coastal path to take a look. 

It all appeared to be moving in slow motion - blue rollers would rise up and up and just as they broke, the strong southerly wind would tear the crests off them which spun away in a dazzle of silver'd spray. It was what used to be known as a Kodak moment! Forecast is for 29° today so we're meeting a friend for lunch out at Arcangues.   

Here's an interesting video that shows our part of the world as it used to be:

NB. The rowing club shows up at 1:35. The former indoor market appears at 7:54. This was an outstanding example of the 'brutalist' school (I made that name up) of French architecture. They seem incapable of occupying the middle ground in the way that British architects (or perhaps their patrons) are prone to do. The Sainsbury Wing (right) of the National Gallery, London is a bland pastiche of classical styles (beloved of Prince Charles!) designed to blend in.. anonymously. 

Here, in France, patrons seem willing to take risks with new buildings.. and the results can shock. The former indoor market at Bayonne fell into that category in my uneducated view. Equally however, they are capable of rising to the challenge and producing something sublime - such as the Louvre Pyramid (above).   

La Concha, San Sebastian
13th October. Madame had some positive health news this morning - so to give her a welcome change of scenery we decided to go to San Sebastian.. It was a balmy 28° and it seemed like all of Spain was out there, taking the air. Afterwards, I just had to google this to find out what was going on - and yes, yesterday - 12th October - was Spain's national holiday - Hispanic Day. It seems that many people had taken today off as well as the town's pavements (sidewalks) were thronged with people. I lost count of how many times passers-by stopped us to look at the pup - he really had the ladies of San Sebastian going! The beach was getting crowded too with sun worshippers while flotillas of stand-up paddlers were wobbling gingerly across the bay.

We talked ourselves into having a light lunch at Kata4 - a stylish oyster bar/restaurant around the corner from the Hotel Maria Cristina and ideally situated for people watching. We'd been here before and liked it very much. Our friendly multilingual waitress spoke Spanish, French and English.. and I suspect she had a few more up her sleeve. The menu changes often - have a look at the photos. I also put a couple of pins on the map in the left hand column for Kata4 and another favourite - a cider house/restaurant outside town called Petritegi (left).

12th October. I was out with the pup earlier and I took him to his usual watering hole - a tree-lined park just a few minutes away. Today, it was clear that Autumn was coming - the trees were showing a spread of colours centred around russet and, to punctuate the message, there was the occasional sound of acorns hitting the ground as they fell down from on high. I've set the kindling in our wood-burner in advance so that it's ready for that first evening when a fire is called for. We had a few trees taken down in the garden a couple of years ago and the logs have been stacked at the side of the house ever since to thoroughly dry them out before they get burnt. I think we're all set!

Yesterday saw us hit one of those once-in-a-lifetime anniversaries - it was 50 years ago to the day when I met my inamorata. Fifty years..? How could that be possible - but yet, it's true. For this date, we'd always talked about a trip to Paris and dinner at the legendary Tour d'Argent. This wonderfully situated restaurant has been on our 'to do' list for as long as I can remember - but the arrival of Nutty has meant that that particular ambition has had to be put on hold.

La Plancha
So, time for Plan B.. We decided to have lunch at the relaxed, unpretentious and friendly La Plancha, a seafood restaurant at Bidart. (to orientate yourself, look here) There's a terrace overlooking the beach and the sea and, for those cooler days, there are tables inside as well. If this restaurant was any nearer the sea, you'd have wet feet! After all the recent unsettled weather we enjoyed a perfect sunny cloudless day (with temps up in the mid twenties) sitting out on their terrace overlooking the almost deserted beach, although it did start to fill up later on. We started off with an Assiette Hispanique - which was a generous serving of thinly sliced jambon de Bayonne, chorizo, lomo and saucisson accompanied by some green chillies. This was followed by a rich, garlicky Zarzuela (a Catalan interpretation of Marseille's bouillabaisse that looked something like this). Suffice to say, it was just what we needed to celebrate the day. Here (below) is my photo from yesterday - apologies for the tilt! I can't find a menu online so step through these photos to get an idea of what else is on offer. Reviews here.
View from 'La Plancha'

6th October. Nutty, our new cocker spaniel pup, is growing while-U-watch! Here he is in the garden earlier this afternoon pondering the meaning of life (or maybe not), and taking a well-earned break from something or other - excavating for Britain, eating shrubs, racing around like a mad thing, jumping down the steps three at a time.. He now weighs in at a tad under 10kgs.. (he was 6.2 when we got him) 

1st October. A couple of days ago, I took Madame to look at electric bikes and she took a couple out for a spin. Just as I was a few months ago, she was delighted with the experience - she particularly liked the Kalkhoff Voyager Mover B8 (a name that trips off the tongue!) for its sit-up-and-beg riding position. Once the dust has settled, we might well go for one of these.

This morning I took GodzillaPup down to the beach for a leg stretch - the weather was dismal - constant drizzle under low stratus that was almost down to the deck. Looking at the sea, it was still very busy with breakers of around 3m or so - but the whole scene looked like 50 Shades of Grey.. with just a hint of pale green in the waves as they broke. It wasn't a morning for walking and the pup was glad (and so was I) when we turned around and headed back to the car.

We (I) came home to rabbit with prunes in a red wine sauce.. with a potato and celeriac mash. To help this go south, we opened a bottle of Saint-Pourçain red* (now stocked at our local Carrefour). I was riding very low in the water after this - but then Madame brought out some pears that had been braised in red wine. The challenge for me now is to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon!

*This is well worth searching out.   

Friday, 1 September 2017

247. September showers

30th September. I was down at the beach earlier today with the pup and to my surprise the sea was white with crashing foam and towering breakers. There was virtually no wind. It set me to wondering why this should be. Could there be any linkage with the recent Caribbean hurricanes? Or am I missing something blindingly obvious? And just now, when I opened our west-facing bedroom windows to close the shutters, I thought I could hear the soughing of the sea - and that must be 4-5km distant as the crow flies - I suppose it's possible. 

In a few days, Madame and I will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the momentous evening when our orbits intersected for the first time - little realising that we would turn out to be lifetime soulmates. We've been casting around for places to go - but, with the arrival of SuperPup (9.2kgs and counting!), we've had to scale back our ideas.

We're now looking at paying La Tupina (in Bordeaux) a visit. La Tupina is arguably the temple to the cuisine of south west France - and that, for me, is unarguably the best cuisine of all. We've been there once before but, for whatever reason, we were never able to make it back there. I understand that there's been a change of management (uh-oh) since our last visit. Read this review and prepare to salivate! Some reviews from the NYT: 19972002, Foodie photos here..

Couldn't resist this:
Stairway to heaven..!
29th September. We were in Saint-Jean-de-Luz yesterday evening to meet some friends. When we left home at 5pm, the car was indicating 39½°C.. although it was probably more like 31°. And, leaving Saint-Jean to return home at around 8.30, it was still 25° and this was the sky looking out across the bay to the west:

25th September. The training of the pup is going in fits and starts.. I think what we have is the dominant dog from his litter. While he's gradually getting the hang of things, this particular exercise is taking longer than it should for him to master:

It's taken me 10 years to get around to explaining this - the names of the different cuts of meat in France. (There'an international guide to meat cuts here). The diagram below is a good starting point for those of us in France. (More on those French cuts here. More here.) If you're not sure you can remember any of this, a simple rule of thumb for choosing tender meat is to remember: the further away from the horns and the ground, the better. On the diagram below these cuts are numbered 1. Finally, don't ignore bavette (shown as a 2 below) or onglet (sometimes called hanger steak in the US). 

24th September.  Whizzed down to Socoa (near Saint-Jean-de-Luz) this morning to walk the dog along the sea wall before lunch. We'd booked a table at Chez Pantxua, one of our favourite restaurants. For seafood, it's incomparable. The warm weather had brought out shoals of people with the same idea.. but who hadn't booked. Our restaurant was soon 'complet' and the staff were having to turn people away.

We ordered the house speciality - the paella - and it was truly excellent. We exited the restaurant like a couple of stuffed ducks!

The photo below is exactly as it appeared on our table.. No photoshop or special enhancements required..
Needless to say, we didn't feel the need to eat this evening!

This is the view looking across the bay to Saint-Jean-de-Luz with the Pyrenees in the misty background:

And here's a view looking at Ciboure / Socoa with La Rhune behind:

Madame has a new name for the pup - "Bulldozaire"! He's discovered tugging.. and he's good at it. Once he has something clamped in his jaws, he defies us to take it off him. For a 4 month old pup, he has impressive strength..   

22nd September. Nutty, our black and white (tricolour really) all-action monster English cocker spaniel 4x4 pup, is 4 months old tomorrow - and I'm convinced that he's doubled in size in the few brief weeks that we've had him. He's a quick learner but walking on a lead still appears to be a bit of a mystery to him. Plus, he hasn't yet figured out what the purpose of a walk is.. He comes back home having sniffed at all the usual places - but that's as far as it goes.. he saves his donations for a greener earth until he's back home in his own garden.

The weekend before last saw me taking part in the annual commemoration of the WWII evasion network known as the Comet Line. Allied bomber crews who had been shot down in Holland, Belgium and northern France were collected by Comet helpers and fed, clothed, housed and provided with false papers before they were dispatched by train from Brussels to Paris, Bordeaux and the Pays Basque. During the course of two days, we walk over the same tracks up and over the Pyrenees that the aircrew took en route to their freedom.

We had another good turnout this year despite the unseasonal torrential rain that marked the weekend. We had participants from as far afield as Dubai, New Jersey and Toronto but the prize for the furthest travelled went to a couple of ardent Australian Basque-o-philes Sue and Barry, from near Brisbane. It was great to see you both again - well done you two - and I hope the experience didn't put you off. Next year we're tackling the inland route that was used later in the war and you'll be pleased to hear that there's no river crossing involved!

I just about reached my own personal limit on that first climb.. I'm sure the mountain has become steeper since the last time I did it.

These two picture sum up the weekend!☺

Yes, that's water rushing down the path you can see below:  

21st September. This is a beautiful Basque song I heard the other day - "Agur Jaunak" sung here by Oldarra:
Here's Oldarra again with "Maitia Nun Zira": 

More here.

7th September. It's our annual long weekend up in the mountains this weekend.. and the forecast is not good. Looks like being a wet Saturday and Sunday - which is a great shame because we have people coming from as far afield as New Jersey, Dubai and Brisbane - as well as from Spain, Belgium, the UK, Ireland and France. Still, as my old rowing master used to say "It's only water!"

I was prompted by this photo to think about wine.. and it struck me that even if I tried a different wine every day for the rest of my life, I'd never finish the job.

Sometimes it seems that I've been on an eternal quest for the Holy Grail -  for the wine one sip of which would have my eyeballs rotating and which would send my internal wine-o-meter into the red zone! There's something of the "grass is always greener" to it all. Why shouldn't I instead settle for the fact that life's just too short to taste them all? I think from now on, I'll stick to drinking and enjoying the ones I like. That way = more pleasure and fewer disappointments.

3rd September. When you have a quiet moment, go and make yourself a coffee/tea/whatever, and listen to this piece by Roger Scruton.. I'd be surprised if it didn't have you nodding in agreement:

I've always believed that in jazz, less is more.. Listen to that great trumpeter Chet Baker as he reminds us of those times when we felt blue:

2nd September. More grey skies and rain this morning. I'll have to dig out my waterproofs ready for next weekend - just in case.

1st September. "Liebestraume" is a great Django Reinhardt track - and it was used in the soundtrack of a favourite Woody Allen film of mine - "Sweet and Lowdown"*. I put this short homage to Django together and the part that does it for me comes in at 0:35.. 

* If you'd like to watch "Sweet and Lowdown", try this link.. it might just work where you are. No promises!

Grey skies and showers today.. next weekend I'll be up in the mountains.. Hopefully we'll have dry weather. I was down on the border near Biriatou this afternoon and the mountains were wrapped in dark grey clouds.  

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

246. Deep in deepest France

31st August. This morning, I finally set in motion the process to apply for dual nationality by posting a bulky envelope containing a great wodge of paperwork. Apart from a form I'd printed off the internet with the basic information, I had to include a copy of my passport, a certified translated copy of my criminal record (blank of course - need you ask!), certified translated copies of my birth certificate and my parents' birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, my wife's birth certificate, a copy of her father's birth certificate - pause for breath - a statement from the bank here that we have a joint account, a statement from the tax authorities, plus a 55€ "timbre fiscal", a stamped addressed envelope address to us, and a registered letter. Phew...          

How does that expression go? "Times flies like an arrow - but fruit flies like a banana.." I realised this morning that it was 10 years ago today that we set off in our hired van from England for sunnier climes. We'd sold our house in England, and we didn't have a house to go to in France - all we had was an address for a gîte down in the Pays Basque. We'd well and truly burnt our boats. We thought we might have to spend up to a year there before we found a house to buy. It didn't quite work out like that! (see here)

And for anyone reading this who is contemplating moving across the Channel - the $64,000 question - "Do we have any regrets?". I'm afraid the answer is no, not one. Would we do it all again? Yes, in a heartbeat. Would I give any advice? I'd say plan your move, plan your move and plan your move. Try to think through in advance all the "what ifs"- and nail as many of them as possible while you're in England.  

The other significance of this date was, of course, the final act in the short and ultimately tragic life of Princess Diana. Twenty years ago, we'd been invited to France to take part in a friend's wedding anniversary celebrations over a long weekend near Bourges. We had to leave early by car on the Sunday morning to return to England. As we drove north, we started picking up the morning news faintly on the BBC long wave and, to our disbelief, we heard the shocking announcement of her untimely death a few hours earlier in nearby Paris. Like everybody else, we were absolutely stunned and we couldn't begin to imagine how on earth she had managed to come to grief in a chauffeur-driven limo in the centre of Paris. Needless to say, it's been the subject of endless speculation ever since.  

The only comment I'd make is that I thought she'd breathed some much-needed fresh air and normality into the stuffy Royals. At least, that's my perception. The truth is, none of us really know what went on in that marriage and that family. I have my own views. Suffice to say, I don't think Charles has ever realised what he lost by pursuing his own aims. Perhaps I shouldn't say this but he became almost likeable while he was married to Diana - some of her magic having rubbed off on him.  

28th August. The atmosphere cooked up something special up for us early this evening.. The skies darkened and then the first flickering flashes of sheet lightning started. Then the lightning became more or less continuous before it moved on to bigger things. Suddenly there was an intense electric blue and white flash - like a big city transformer exploding - as lightning struck somewhere close by. This was followed a second or two later by the mother of all explosions as a bass drum roll of thunder shook the house in a continuing rumble that sounded for all the world like a stick of bombs going off a few streets away. Unfortunately, the pup had chosen that moment to have a sniff around the garden - and I've not seen him move so fast before as he shot indoors!

24th August. Just noticed that the slideshow I had set up in the left hand column has disappeared. I'll have to see about reinstating it with another photo storage service.. I think Photobucket has changed its terms and conditions and now that it has captured billions of treasured images, it wants to charge...

22nd August. A loong time ago I lived on a Greek island and in the late afternoons/early evenings I used to work in a drinks store owned by a Greek guy. When trade was slack, we'd close up and drive out to a shack where we'd make and then bottle ouzo. Later in the evening, we'd go to an open air bar out on a headland where inevitably - as night follows day - someone would start dancing the sirtaki.. It's surprisingly hard to learn the sequence of steps - after all, there are only so many things you can do with two arms, two legs, two knees and two feet. Or so you'd think! This little clip takes me back.. I was never this good:
I've just discovered that there was a Festival Biarritz Années Folles (Biarritz in the Roaring Twenties Festival) in June 2017. A few wannabe 'Boy' Capels on show here.. Plus I would have needed to brush up my dancing skills (such as they are) if we'd gone.. One of the problems with these events is that it can be guaranteed that the MC will pick up a microphone and insist on talking and talking ad infinitum. (surgical intervention being required). I have a notoriously short attention span for many of the activities portrayed here (apart from 21:36!). I think I would have glazed over before too long.. and been caught sneaking a peek at my watch!

19th August. Yesterday it was the turn of Barcelona to experience the horror of a terror attack. It seems that they're occurring with increased frequency these days. I believe our interests would be best served by not revealing any details at all about the measures that are being taken to nullify these attacks.

18th August. I omitted to mention the passing of Glen Campbell, who achieved instant global fame with his enigmatic song - "Wichita Lineman". On the face of it, it's pretty much a 'nothing' easy listening song but then the mental images accumulate - a nostalgic lineman up a telegraph pole out on the lonely prairie, with the wind in the wires, missing his girl - and combine with what sounds like morse code and voila.. it all comes together. I heard this song the other day for the first time in years and it has stood the test of time very well. Have a listen:
Another unforgettable retail experience to chalk up.. It was decided by Higher Authority that the toilet seat in the downstairs loo needed replacing. With the pup unable to be left on his own at the moment, I was dispatched out on a solo mission - to implement "Operation Toilet Seat"! The toilet in the downstairs porcelain reading room is, at a whopping 37 centimetres wide, of Godzilla-like proportions. I soon found myself staring at a bewildering array of seats at a local DIY megastore armed only with a tape measure. I finally homed in on a likely suspect, made the purchase and dashed for home.

When I unpacked the object, I checked to see where it had been made (knowing in advance what the answer would be). Yes, of course, it had been manufactured in the People's Republic of China (PRC). I think we're doomed. The writing's on the wall. How is it that we can't even produce toilet seats? Is there nothing the PRC can't make?

The grey-suited functionaries currently shining their backsides in Brussels should be asking themselves the question: how is it that a country on the other side of the world can manufacture a simple domestic product, ship it to Europe and still sell it at a competitive price? Having established that our manufacturing costs are too high, the next question for the well-fed fonctionnaires should surely be - what do we have to do to make our industries more competitive? The answer is clear: we must reduce the punitive burden of the 'social charges' that European manufacturers are liable for.    

16th August. Here's a short video of Nutty - the latest addition to the household.. (I made it just for the record - Martin Scorcese it's not!)
The Edinburgh Festival has occasionally seen new comic talent emerge. Judging by the 10 Best Jokes from this year's festival, I think we can safely say that established comedians need have no further worries about their job security in 2017. I can't believe that these dire offerings are the 10 Best. If I told one of these, I'd expect no more than a polite smile - at best.    

12th August. After the passage of a long year since we lost our golden boy, the house once again is alive with the sound of the pitter-patter of paws! We drove up to a cocker spaniel breeder in Lot-et-Garonne on Thursday and - surprise, surprise - we came away with a 2½ month old pup. There were around 12 of them vying for our attention but he stood out from the rest - he picked himself - but if I'm honest, I could have grabbed the whole squirming mass of them! There wasn't a single one that we wouldn't have given a home to.

We decided we needed time to make our minds up so we drove to nearby Duras to talk it over, away from the distraction of a dozen playful pups - with the help of a glass of the local red. By some quirk of French law, dogs have to be registered with a name with the initial letter for the year in question. This year's letter is N. In the end, we chose this little feller, who will soon be answering to the name of Nutty.. (once he's learned it!)  He's settled in quickly without any dramas, and we're looking forward to the day when we can take him out - another couple of weeks yet.

11th August. One for the ladies.. Here's an interesting tale from the dusty margins of history.. and it's one that I'd not heard before.

I'd once read somewhere that Coco Chanel had opened her first shop at Biarritz (left) in or around 1915 - but I was unaware of the rest of the story. A hundred years on, the location remains largely unchanged.

It appears that she'd had an independently wealthy English lover, Captain Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel, and, in the time-honoured fashion, he had generously advanced her the start-up money she'd needed to open up her first shops (she surprised him later by paying it all back in full!).

"Boy" & Coco
He was described as "an intellectual, politician, author, a ship-owning tycoon, polo-player and the dashing lover and sponsor of the fashion designer Coco Chanel" - and he continued seeing Coco Chanel after his marriage.. so, in the language of the day, he'd be classed as a cad and a bounder. In those days, the only punishment possible for a transgression such as this would have been a sound horsewhipping!☺ Today, her former shop in the centre of Biarritz is home to the Bookstore and Maison Adam - both of which are worth visiting.

I was just re-reading the above description of 'Boy' Capel and it occurred to me that we don't make them like that any more. Is there anyone around today who fits that description? I very much doubt it. Tragically, 'Boy' was to be killed in a road accident outside Cannes (either on a motorcycle or in a Rolls-Royce - the history books are unclear) in 1919.

There's now a "Boy" Capel Challenge - a classic car rally that does a lap of the Côte d'Azur, starting from Cannes and visits Aix-en-Provence, Gorge du Verdon, St. Paul de Vence before returning to Cannes. Here are the participants as they rumble through Cotignac - a lovely Provençale village we visited a few years ago. Enjoy this stroll through Cotignac on what looks like a lazy out of season Sunday lunchtime - best in full screen:
On the face of it, the world has changed greatly - but if you read this account of the hedonism of the twenties, it will quickly become apparent that 'excess' wasn't a product of the modern age - it had all been done long before.

9th August. Here's an interesting and thought-provoking documentary that tries to define progress. Today, more than ever, we are being constantly presented with "improvements" to existing technologies and when we're unable to absorb any more changes, we get new technologies thrust at us. 

In my lifetime, we've gone from playing music on 78rpm records - to 45s - to 33s, then to reel-to-reel tape recorders to cassettes, to CDs - and then it went crazy... Now, we have music available on MP3 players, USB sticks, our mobile phones, the cloud (?) and so it goes. (I'm sure I've missed a few steps out at the end there!). It's the same with photography. Without going through the same process of listing the changes in cameras over the last 50 years - just ask yourself how many obsolete cameras do you have tucked away gathering dust in drawers at home? (We must have at least 6 cameras of varying stages of obsolescence - no longer used.)

During the last decade of my working life, a common mantra was that we had to "embrace change". And since then, politicians have used the need for change in their campaign slogans - but without defining exactly what that change would consist of, and perhaps more importantly, who it would benefit (apart from getting them elected!). If, however, we're against change, we're seen as reactionary dinosaurs. Surely we must establish the benefit of any change before adopting it lemming-like. Mobile phones are a good example. I have no need for a mobile phone. Let me repeat that: I have zero need for a mobile phone. Nada. Zip. Niente. I've inherited one from Madame but it just sits on the hall table and there it stays. Sometimes I feel all changed out!

Coming back from the Auvergne last week, we pulled off the A89 to find somewhere for lunch and we stopped at Montignac in the Dordogne. It was a "tourist-rich" environment and clustered around the entrance to a riverside restaurant we were contemplating were a number of English girls - each of them armed with an iphone. Instead of looking at the menus posted outside, they were frantically calling up the restaurant's page on Trip Advisor to see what people thought of it - before suddenly deciding that a restaurant across the river had received better reviews - and they were off!

6th August. The parking gods smiled on us this morning in Biarritz.. Yes, an August Sunday and we found a place straight off. We had to arrive there at 10am though! The town was alive with rumbling Harleys, blatting their "potato-potato" sound, and innumerable bloated German 4x4s. In the middle of all this, and close to where we parked, was a superb 40 year old example of what is arguably automobile perfection – an early 70s Porsche 911 in ice green - similar to the one here but different colour. No frills, no fat – just a lithe, supple and timeless shape designed for one thing and one thing only. These cars have their detractors I know but, aah, that shape.. This is the car I always wanted - a Porsche 912. Designed as an entry level model, it had a 1600 flat four and it was later upgraded with an 86bhp VW 2 litre four. As I never wished to blat around at the speed of heat, it would have suited me fine. Join me in drooling over this one here! This model was briefly affordable until just a few years ago but values have skyrocketed (40,000€+) in recent years as baby boomers chase the car of their teenage dreams.

Hard at it at the Bleu Café on the Grande Plage this morning!

3rd August. Please don't forget to send me your tips for including on my interactive map of our favourite affordable restaurants in France where they still cook to the old standards. By that I mean restaurants where the dishes are prepared and cooked in the kitchen - with not a microwave in sight! See here for further details.

2nd August. Just as the Fêtes de Bayonne kicked off last week, we escaped up to Salers in the Auvergne. For many people, Salers is famous for one thing: its grass-fed beef. The Salers breed has to be hardy to survive the long winters up at altitude and their thick coats are a rich mahogany red. They all seemed to be fitted with bells around their necks and so we were serenaded every evening by what sounded like gusts of wind blowing through a wind chime factory - as here!

Here's the village of Salers.. Three thousand feet up, it's built of volcanic basalt, and it presents a solid yet unprepossessing face to the world with its dark stone edifices and heavy split stone roof tiles.

This dourness is reflected in the food - here there are no large white plates with slices of meat artfully arranged on top of a mini-tower of 3 carottes rondelles - with a 'signature' swirl of jus.. (spare me!)
 No, it's solid fare here and there are such local delights as 'pounti' (I never got around to trying it) and something called a 'liogue'. (a large diameter sausage served sliced - this I did try). Another evening, I tried pig's trotter (foot) with foie gras. I must admit I wasn't sure what to expect with this! It turned out to be something that was the size of a slightly flattened tennis ball that had been breaded and deep-fried. It contained nothing readily identifiable (rather like a haggis!) and it was rather bland in taste. The jury's still out on that one. (Perhaps it was a tennis ball! Aagghh!)

A speciality of the Auvergne that I've had before is chou farci which translates as an unappetising-sounding 'stuffed cabbage' in Anglo-Saxon. It is anything but.. We had a healthy slice of this one lunchtime and it was delicious. (NB. Must use a savoy cabbage).

Another speciality of the region that we tasted was Gentiane Jaune. I think this falls straight into the "Acquired Taste" category. We've all done it - bought an exotic-looking bottle on an overseas trip, got home, tried it once, and then 10 years later you find it at the back of your drinks cupboard covered in dust with the screw-cap seemingly welded on. (Ask me how I know!)

La truffade
If I had to pick one dish that was omnipresent and exemplified all the local specialities, then I'd have to say it would be truffade.. perhaps the dish of the region. On one occasion, we had it twice in one day!

Here, the making of it is demonstrated by the presenter (below) who sounds as though his trousers are on fire (he comes in at 0:11). It is the ideal fuel if you anticipate digging a ditch sometime in the near future - but for bumbling around the lanes, visiting villages, it's probably a few calories too many! However, when it's accompanied by a glass of Saint-Pourçain rouge*, it all seems to make sense.. (More here)

* We've had the white Saint-Pourçain several times but the red was new to both of us - and very nice it was too. We now have a ½ case on order..
Let's not forget that this region of France was heavily involved in the 100 Years War.. The 15th century Château d'Anjony is one of those medieval structures that simply takes your breath away.. (more here and here)

Outside of the villages, the physical features of the landscape have been laid out on a grand scale:

As for the above video, I refuse to do anything (with my clothes on!) that requires me to cry out "Woo-hoo!"..

Meanwhile, I’m now smarting from a letter I opened at lunchtime. We’d been to St J de L one evening about a month ago and we were chatting on the way home - in a 50kmh limit with a known radar camera.. As I went by the camera at 57kmh I thought “Oh noooooo!”.

Oh yes, the fine came today. For doing 7 kmh over the limit (ie, just over 4mph) I have to pay a 90€ fine. Grrr!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

245. Traditional French restaurants

27th June. Just received this from Perry & Caroline Taylor - it hit my tickle button! Perry's a fine cartoonist in the Sempé mould.. but always with a twist of the South West. As he says::
Jazz musicians come from all around the world to play at Marciac, even the locals.
An unwelcome change has taken place in French restaurants over the last decade or two. It's the creeping blight of serving pre-prepared meals and it's eating away at one of France's greatest cultural offerings.

Yes, there are still affordable gems that exist - family-run hotels, restaurants, inns and cafés - that somehow have managed to survive with their standards intact, but sadly these places are slowly disappearing as the realities of modern life catch up with rural France. If they haven't yet disappeared, then la carte has shrunk with each passing year. Yes, the big names are still "out there" - but I'm talking about places that are routinely affordable - not the temples to gastronomy that you might go to to celebrate a major anniversary.

It costs (in ‘social’ charges) about 2000€ a month* to employ someone here on a modest wage – and that’s before you start paying them the wage..

* This figure was given to me recently - but please correct me if I'm wrong.

So the restaurateur has two choices: either put the prices up – or invest in a large microwave oven. Or perhaps both. Into the microwave oven goes pre-prepared food provided by these wholesale suppliers. Here are one company's offerings tailored for SW France.. These wholesale suppliers have similar products tailored for the rest of France.

I’m not suggesting that their products are of poor quality – but what they're doing is leveling the playing field. It's the "blandification" of cooking (as George Dubya might have said). It’s destroying the art of cooking – all you need to employ now are “ding” chefs* – who need far less training and knowledge, therefore they are cheaper. Also, fewer kitchen staff are required and kitchens themselves can be smaller thus allowing more profitable restaurant floorspace.  If you go into a restaurant, and they have a huge menu, you can guarantee you’re about to enjoy a pre-prepared meal. One major supplier employs 1900 people and delivers to 43,000 restaurants in France. 

* the sound the microwave makes when it’s finished!

I'm looking to build up a list of affordable restaurants from across all of France that serve food cooked in the traditional manner - using fresh ingredients, prepared and cooked in the restaurant kitchens. 

"How can I tell?" I hear you ask? You can tell - but you'll have to use your common sense - look at the number of covers in the dining room, the size of the menu and ask yourself is it likely that in the case of a menu that features 10-15 or more starters / main courses / desserts that they will all have been freshly prepared?

With the aid of a few kindred spirits, I've put together a map that shows what I'm after. If you've emerged from a restaurant feeling that the taste in your mouth is that of pre-prepared institutionalised food, then toss their card in the nearest bin. If, however, it's clear that you've been eating food that's been prepared on the spot (probably in a family-run restaurant) then I'd be grateful if you could send me the details and I'll include it on the map below. I'd need your name (a first name will be fine) - let me know if you are happy or not for me to include it in the description - the name of the restaurant, the address & postcode, the website if you know it, the type of food served (specialities etc) and a short description that summarised your experience. Don't forget to include what someone could expect to pay, including wine and coffee. See the examples on the map.

Needless to say, I have no involvement in any way, shape or form with any of the restaurants currently listed or any that may be listed in the future.

NB To see the map full size in the blog, click on the >> arrow at the top right of the map. If the text is compressed or you just want to see it in full screen, click here. The markers take a few seconds to load. Click on the photos to see them in larger format. Use the +/- buttons to zoom in or out. The position of each pointer is accurate so if you select 'Satellite' at top left and zoom right in, you can see exactly where the restaurant is.. 

To send your suggestion in, either use the Comment facility at the bottom of this post - or email me using the form in the left hand column. Also, if you visit any of these, I'd be interested in your views. Over to you!

Many thanks!

Saturday, 1 July 2017

244. The Lions roar at last!

25th July. We're in for a noisy night tonight.. there's a concert at the bullring with this shower.. (the bullring is just a couple of hundred metres from us) They've been practising most of the day and, without wishing to sound like my parents, well, fill in the rest yourselves!
23rd July. This morning we went to Sare - one of the most beautiful of all French villages - never mind just in the Pays Basque.

There was a Fiesta des Brocs taking place and neighbours of ours were stand-holders there so we were talked into going!

There's junk and there's junk.. There was junk of the kind we hoard in our attics, garages and cellars.. and there was junk of the kind you normally put straight into the bin.

I thought I'd seen everything until I looked at one stand and I saw a pair of false teeth for sale..! Who would buy them and for what? Cutting out pastry? And if someone wanted them to actually use - surely they'd have to try them for size on the spot.. Aaarrgghh!

Meanwhile, preparations for the annual Fêtes de Bayonne have been going on for the last few weeks - barriers, signs, parking - in anticipation of the flood of humanity that is about to roll over us like some vast, unstoppable, animated white and red tsunami.

This monster of a festival kicks off at 10pm on Wednesday evening.. Until you've lived in a town of 40,000 that's suddenly invaded by approximately 1.3 million people over 5 days it's impossible to have any idea of its impact. Have a look here. Time to re-open the escape tunnel!

22nd July. This next song has long been a personal favourite..

Here's the great Jacques Tati on the differences between English and French policemen!

21st July. Whenever I hear music played on a cimbalom, this actor's face* springs to mind. To me, he always defined sinister..  as in "Ah, come in, Meestair Bond, we haf been expecting you..." or "Are you paying too much for your car insurance?" (maybe I'm wrong about the second one!) 

* Vladek Sheybal.. 

20th July. I'm not usually a great fan of videos taken by drones - but this one of the high-priced* Biarritz seafront is exceptional. (it does take a couple of minutes to get into its stride though!) As always, best in full screen and HD if your connection can manage it:
* As the saying has it - if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it!

18th July. More videos on Bayonne (NB. Liked them all - except for the ones showing bullfighting):
Uncomfortable afternoon here. It started off well this morning too.. it was cool while I took my bow saw to a small tree in the front garden that was rapidly becoming a medium-sized tree. I then had to take a saw and secateurs to all the branches and bag it all up ready for the déchetterie. It turned out to be thirsty work in the end!

During the afternoon, someone turned up the heat and by 6pm it was an oppressive 37° and sticky with it.. and then - boom - thunder, lightning and rain.. The temperature dropped 10° in as many minutes.

17th July. I've been busy these last few days painting the shutters from the two west-facing upstairs windows at the rear of the house. They bear the brunt of the winter weather - and as I've mentioned before, when it rains here, it rains! I decided to put two coats of Basque Rouge on them - and I suddenly realised that meant painting 16 sides! Both windows have two shutters so that's four to start with. Two sides to each shutter - makes 8 sides... Two coats for each side = 16! The paint took its time to dry in this hot weather too.. and once dry, we had the fun and games of putting them back up. They are not light.

Here are some beautiful images of the Basque country.. (photos mainly from the Spanish side)
9th July. Yesterday saw the dénouement of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand culminate with the 3rd and final Test against New Zealand. The Lions had gone into the tour with many pundits (all from New Zealand it has to be said!) predicting a 10-0 series whitewash.. and if that didn't happen, then at least a 3-0 blackwash in the three Tests at the hands of NZ was widely forecast. In case you're visiting from another planet, NZ won the 1st Test, the B&I Lions won the second - so everything hung on the outcome of the the 3rd Test.

Only the highlights are available I'm afraid - it starts at 3:29..

7th JulyEric the Magic Carpenter™ is back with us.. He's doing some much-needed maintenance on our heavy wooden west-facing shutters upstairs at the rear of the house - where they bear the brunt of the winter storms. The shutters that face west are solid, built from pine (?) planks with a z bar reinforcement. He cut out the rotten bits and replaced them with new wood where necessary. There are four of them, each about 6ft high and heavy, and they're not easy to heave on and off their external mountings without falling out of the window! We had a near-miss this morning where Eric was very close to achieving this trick at one stage! More acrobatics this afternoon!

He arrived at 7.30am - worked through without a break until 12 noon, went home for his lunch - started again at 1.15pm and left at 6pm - after tidying everything up and sweeping out the garage where he'd been working. He took down and completely overhauled 3 shutters (including repainting them in undercoat), made a new shutter from scratch, fitted a new complicated closing mechanism, replaced a rotten timber support on the garage door, re-hung the sliding garage doors (without being asked) and fitted a new section of skirting board in the sitting room. What a star!

4th July. I hope readers across the US have a happy 4th July! Best wishes to all!

The heat has returned.. It's up around 32° this afternoon with 35° forecast for tomorrow. I'll be off downstairs in a minute to make something long and cold.

It's now 7.30pm and it's 38° on our terrace. As much as we like the heat, it's too hot to sit out. Fortunately, the house stays cool in hot weather.

1st July. I'm a passionate British & Irish Lions supporter, and while I was delighted and thankful for that hard-fought win in the 2nd Test against New Zealand, I have to say that there has been a gap (but not a gulf) in the standard between NZ Test rugby and that offered up by the B&I Lions. NZ has always played a fast, hard-hitting and frenetic brand of rugby.. believing that, as opposition bodies and minds tire, the relentless aggression from NZ would keep the scoreboard ticking over. However, the perceived 'gap' is not nearly as big as some in New Zealand would have us believe.. The physical conditioning of northern hemisphere players has improved dramatically and so I think that the 'gap' (if it still exists) has narrowed to the point where a Lions win on Saturday is eminently do-able, now that Gatland has found his winning mix of players.

The 2nd Test was a "must win" game for the Lions, especially given that Beauden Barrett had an off day with his kicking, the match was played in torrential rain and NZ went down to 14 men after losing Sonny Bill Williams - who was justifiably red-carded early on in the match following a brutal shoulder charge into Anthony Watson's face. In my book, this was not accidental. This was the NZ win-at-all-costs mentality and it came back to bite them.

But, as we're constantly being told, a win's a win and the record books will only show that the Lions defeated NZ at Wellington in the 2nd test for the ABs first home defeat in 8 years. One major positive was that, unlike the B&I Lions, the ABs were unable to score a try at home.. How often does that happen* - especially as the NZ media had been castigating the Lions for their lack of tries. And hats off to the Lions fans who would have raised the roof with their fervent support - if the Westpac stadium had had one! * It's 39 games since New Zealand last failed to score a try. 

Here's the 2nd Test in full (from Haka to Kleenex!):

I remain to be convinced that this B&I Lions selection truly reflects the best rugby players in the British Isles - but that's by the by - the last 15-20 minutes was one way traffic. Well done you Lions..! And well done Kieran Read for being gracious in defeat.

I think the crucial 3rd Test has the potential to be a brutal encounter but let's hope it's won by good rugby and that the spectacle is not marred by violence. The match will be officiated by the excellent French referee Romain Poite..