Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Courgette Season is Underway

We've already eaten one good-sized yellow courgette off our main plant. More are fattening up every day. This round one was bought on Friday at Lavelanet market. 
   I stuffed it with the usual sausage meat/tomato/courgette flesh mixture seasoned with herbes de Provence. While that was simmering away to reduce the liquid, I steamed four potatoes cut into quarters. Tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and lots of fresh rosemary, these went into the oven at the same time as the courgettes. 
  At Friday's market, I'd also picked up a big bunch of "Bright Lights" chard. About ten minutes before the courgette halves and potatoes were due to exit the oven, I brought a pan of water to boiling point. The chopped chard stems went in first; the shredded leaves a few minutes later. 
   Oh yes, it was good eaten in the garden as the temperature cooled, the sky grew dark and the level dropped in the rosé bottle.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gaston has a Hygiene Problem

    There's no way to put this delicately. The first stage in the very long journey that begins with a fleece straight off a sheep and ends in a hand-knitted sweater begins with... Let's just say that sheep--and, to judge from the evidence, rams especially, and one ram in particular called Gaston--have little acquaintance with what in France is called papier hygiénique. Nor, come to that, do ewes. 
    Co-fleece-owner Amanda and I had the idea that we'd take our fleeces down to the communal village washing sinks where we thought one tap still worked. It didn't. So we decided to do the preliminary work (called "skirting") on her lawn.The first surprise was their size when we unrolled them. The second was that, even though they'd been tied up for almost a week, the fleeces didn't smell too dreadful when we opened the big garbage bags and tipped the contents on to the lawn. They definitely smelled but in a good, open air, country-ish, barnyard-y way. 
   Just as well or we might have abandoned the whole project. I'd downloaded TMI (Too Much Information) from the Internet. Amanda had printed it out so she was able to consult it as we dug our way through the fleeces coming upon large iridescent and very dead flies, and feeling (sensitive readers, skip the next section) for lumpy or crispy bits to remove. Needless to say, the cats thought they'd discovered the largest mother cat ever. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gaston and I Are About to Get Cozy

The back story. Last December, I met Gaston and les girls, a flock belonging to our Airstream-owning friends Perry and Coline. I asked them what happened to the fleeces. They said they gave them away to be used as insulation. I asked if I could have one. 
   Long story short. After yesterday's cricket match, Coline took me over to a giant, plastic-covered mound and pulled out Gaston's fleece which is dark and enormous (not unlike Gaston himself). We picked another soft, paler one for a friend who is also along on this project. Total beginners at this, she and I plan to wash, card, spin and--in my case--knit. Right now, Gaston's fleece is tied up in a very large black plastic bag. Information on-line suggests using washing-up liquid and a washing machine but I don't think it means the diminutive French washing machines which accommodate a few pairs of socks but not much more. If it came to a stand-off between Gaston and our Zanussi, I wouldn't bet money on the Zanussi. 
    I'll keep you posted.

Happy Days in the Garden

    I just came in from watering ours and a neighbour's garden. Being in full sun all day long, her squash plants are massive. Ours aren't doing too badly. The lettuces have been decimated by snails or slugs (try saying "decimated lettuces" after one too many verres de vin) but there is still enough for a week or two's worth of salads. The roquette (arugula) has already fed us three or four times. More seeds should go in soon to keep the harvest constant. The single tomato was a huge surprise. The yellow courgette was just big enough to pick. The red currants gleam like jewels in the low afternoon sun. 
   The odd-looking plant is a frisée that I planted last October and forgot about. It has shot up and is now displaying these pretty blue flowers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Silly Mid On and Bowling Maiden Overs

     Anyone familiar with cricket is familiar with those terms. We're not that knowledgable (understatement) but always go to the matches at Belrepayre, our friends' house just north of Mirepoix because watching from the sidelines is just as much fun. 
    Straw bales defined the boundaries this afternoon. Teams represented the Ariège (us) and the Aude (the neighbouring departement). I can't remember who won but, at some point, cucumber sandwiches were passed around. Also beer. And blanquette

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Feeling Blue (and Gorgeous Yarns)

The vide grenier at Dun on Sunday also promised crafts but I wasn't expecting to see a vat of woad simmering away, or some of the most glorious knitting yarns ever. 
  Behind both is Andie Luijkwho runs Renaissance Yarns (www.renaissancedyeing.com)
You can buy her totally wonderful yarns on-line, also kits for shawls which make me want to abandon all the reno work I'm supposed to be doing and just knit and knit. Joy of joys, it turns out she lives only a couple of villages away. 
  When someone offers free woad-dyeing, you immediately hare off in search of something white, cotton and preferably vintage. Voila! A blouse for a euro. As with indigo, anything tinted with woad only turns blue when it's exposed to air. Mine wasn't in the vat that long so it's very pale. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A rip-roaring party on a hot Saturday afternoon.

    Friends Bill and Sally throw an annual--and enormous--party for about 100 in their garden in Aigues-Vives. The invitation read "noon to 6 p.m." We arrived late to find dozens of people already settled in around tables under the trees. On this staggeringly hot afternoon, straw hats were out in force. So were kids all the way from a babe in arms to early teens. 
    Christian, the local barbecue expert, turned out endless coils of Toulouse sausage, burgers and chicken wings. A table indoors was full to bursting with quiches, tartes, dips, salads, cheese, breads and, later, desserts. 
    Wine flowed. 
   Later in the afternoon, Alan, our choirmaster (just realized that I have yet to blog about the choir) had brought his guitar along. Cue an impromptu rehearsal. 
   Some went on to the lake for a swim. We came home and napped.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Many moules

This is the always smiling man who sells mussels at markets, also oysters, and occasionally tellines and clams. Mondays, he's at Mirepoix, Fridays at Lavelanet. Today we bought four "bons" kilos from him, "bons" meaning he weighs out far more that. The result was one very heavy plastic bag so we left it with him as we often do while we did the rest of our shopping. And, as he often does, he pretended we hadn't paid when we went back to collect it. 
  These aren't well-mannered cultivated mussels but wild ones, clumped together and covered with seaweed and barnacles. 
  Six of us for supper tonight and warm enough to eat outside. An easy dinner. Pâte, cornichons and a salad of roquette and shallots to start. Then the moules, steamed with onions, with a bowl of the tiniest imaginable new potatoes to mash with the back of your fork to soak up the moules juice. Cheeses with walnut bread (also from Lavelanet market) and fig jam. Fruit salad and cream to finish. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Half Dozen Things to Love About Paris

1. A chocolate shop with its window framed in jasmine. 
2. Tiny baskets of berries displayed like jewels. 
3. A shop window filled with finger puppets.
4. Architectural details (these tiles on the former La Samaritaine department store)
5. Good-looking men in cafés (and everywhere else).
6. Sunset over the Seine.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Paris--Day 8: Le Tour Eiffel

Earlier this week we stopped in at the Hotel de Ville for a look at its Eiffel Tower exhibit. What's fascinating is how close the landmark came to extinction. Various plans involved cropping its top and concealing it inside a "mountain" complete with road to the summit. Now that would have been a drive. 
These shots are from the top of the Pompidou Centre where we spent almost four hours at their superb Kandinsky exhibit. I'm not nuts about the fairground-meets-Meccano-set architecture but you do get spectacular views from the top level.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Paris--Day 7: A Memorable Lunch

Guy Savoy is one of France's best-known chefs. Three stars and all that. The tasting menu at his eponymous restaurant was well beyond our budget but we did get a taste of the freshness and inventiveness of his cuisine at Les Bouquinistes, his comparatively bargain bistro. 
   On the left bank, towards the west of Ile de la Cité, it's a sunny, vivid room that, at lunch-time, thrums with action. We were glad we'd reserved when we saw more than a few people turned away. 
   Almost everyone seemed to be going for the menu du marché which changes daily with a couple of choices for each course. We both went for the duck en brochette, grilled, slightly pink in the middle and faultlessly tender. With it came a salad that I suspect more than one person there will attempt to copy at home. Haricots verts with thin slivers of poached fresh apricot with a sharp-ish, shallot-dense vinaigrette. 
   We picked the same main too: a slice of grilled salmon trout speared on a length of lemongrass and set on a slice of confited potato. Various interesting items around it included halved caperberries.
   Dessert was obscenely good. Peter had a chocolate marquise with coffee ice cream. Mine was a three-parter: a cone of deeply flavoured lavender ice cream garnished with the darkest lavender I've ever seen. Alongside that was a whole poached peach and in a white bowl was a small perfect, and hot, peach soufflé. A glass of wine, plus, as is usual in France, tax and tip, were included in  the 29 euro per person tab. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Paris--Day 6: A Night at the Opera

Tuesday night was sold out, there isn't a performance on Thursday and Friday--our final night here--was sold out too, no small achievement given that the main auditorium holds more than 2700. 
   "Tosca" is one of our favourite operas. Stupidly, we didn't take the camera along probably because every program we've ever seen stipulates  "no photos or videotaping blablabla." So you'll have to imagine the chic crowd sipping champagne between acts. The performance started at 7:30 p.m. so you either had a snack before or sustained yourself with tiny sandwiches and macaroons during the first interval.
   Love, jealousy, betrayal, lust, revenge, torture, murder and a suicide to wrap everything up neatly. Puccini really pulled out all the stops with this one. What an all-round excellent evening we said as we finished it up over pizza and salad.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Paris--Day 6: The Ultimate Cookware Shop

I have a love/hate relationship with the cookware shop Dehillerin. On one hand, there's the sheer abundance of cooking equipment, everything from vegetable "ballers" in umpteen sizes to a colossal kite-shaped pan that's specifically for cooking turbot. On the other, if you do find yourself interested in something, you have to remember a six-digit number so you can look up the price in one of the binders located at various places in the store. But, as always, it was enlightening to see just how many sizes of pan and varieties of utensil exist for turning raw ingredients into every level of dish from the hautest of haute cuisine on down. (By the way, read Internet reviews at your peril. Most of them are by "hobby" cooks whingeing on about how it's not nearly as good as Williams-Sonoma.)
  In business since 1820, the shop occupies an impossibly crammed main floor and a rather spooky basement lined with shelves laden with paper-wrapped pots and pans. Upstairs, the hâtelets always tempt me. Decorative steel skewers, their hilts adorned with ornate wild boars, fish, peacocks and other birds and animals, they're used for very formal dishes, the kind of object that looks as though it comes straight from the pages of Escoffier-era cooking. He shopped here too. You can browse--and buy--on-line at www.dehillerin.fr. If you have an overwhelming desire for a duck press, now you know where to look.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Paris--Day 5: Some Thoughts on Parking in the City of Light

For one thing, I think two euros an hour is reasonable. Work it out in your own currency if you're not in Europe and see how it compares with large British or North American cities. Mind you, unlike most French towns, Paris doesn't give you a free ride between noon and 2 p.m. as most places do. 
   Even so, owning a car here must be hell. You rarely see a parking space and, when you do, it's usually so tiny that you can't imagine how anyone could shoehorn their vehicle into it. But they do. And if they can't, Parisians simply make up a parking space and fill it. Here are two examples that show how a pedestrian crossing needn't be just for pedestrians.

Paris--Day 5: The Street of Stationery

Even when they were trendy, I never really saw the point of spending gazillions on designer shoes or statement-making purses. But let me loose in a decent stationery store and I go weak at the knees.
   Most times we come to Paris, we find ourselves drawn to Rue du Pont Louis Philippe, a narrow street directly across the most westerly bridge that connects Ile St. Louis with the right bank.
   What's sold here is luscious stuff (for stationery junkies). Leather-bound notebooks, notepaper so thick it would stand up on its own, coloured inks, sealing wax, small perfect cards on which to write small perfect thankyous for elegant teas and extravagant dinners.
    Our all-time favourite store is Melodies Graphiques at number ten where, this time, Peter bought a bottle of brown ink, called "Café des Iles" and I had quiet fun experimenting with various pens in the beautifully bound book reserved for that purpose. The object they're lying on is a pen wiper. You can buy those here too. Above the cash desk is a wall filled with exquisitely addressed envelopes that have been sent to the store over the years.

Paris--Day 4: Where did the day go?

In walking around, basically. I worked on a story this morning taking time out to stroll up to Rue de Rivoli for ham and a baguette for lunch, to the Opera for tickets--except the box office was closed, it being June 1, a public holiday we'd forgotten about. In the afternoon, more walking...to the Pompidou Centre where we decided the crowds were really too large to make seeing the Kandinsky exhibit fun. Then to the Picasso Museum, arriving there on the dot of 5:15 to find a sign saying that 5:15 was exactly when ticket sales stopped. Tant pis
   Over to the rive gauche for a very welcome beer and then into Shakespeare and Company, my favourite Paris bookstore--in fact, my favourite bookstore anywhere. Tonight's reading was by Australian writer Marele Day, author of Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain's Wife and her soon-to-be-published Sea Bed, a novel about a Buddhist monk and a group of abalone fisherwomen in Japan. 
   We listened upstairs, surrounded by more books than you could read in a lifetime, then went off for supper at La Fourmi Ailée, a little place we ate at last year which was conveniently just across a park and around the corner. Fittingly, its decor is mostly books.