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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Fish 'n' cabbage

Today in France is Fête des Mères, Mothers' Day, interestingly shared only it appears with Sweden, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Whilst having a day to fete mothers is a shared practice around the globe the date itself is not - for more info. The UK and Ireland are the only countries to link the celebration directly to the church calendar.

Max's mother, Renée, is even more deserving than usual this year as she is holding the fort at the village store whilst Jean-Michel convalesces after his back operation. So, Max took over shop duties this morning and I set to work in the kitchen. It has been the loveliest day in a while with only short periods of being overcast but otherwise the sun is shining and warming us beautifully. My mood was lifted and soon I was singing along to the radio and peeling and chopping away. On the menu was, a starter to be concocted, a choucroute aux fruits de mer, and an apple and date crumble.

I am very aware as I type this that I am once again treading on the toes of my great friend and creator of Lemon Soul - a blog not to be missed, see link to the right - but it cannot be helped as in France food is very much linked to everyday life so special events necessarily have added culinary importance.

What a joy it was to cook with gas again - we have those horrible halogen jobbies in the house, soon to be replaced - and it wasn't long before the crumble was in the oven and browning gently. The recipe came from the rather nice site called Chocolate and Zucchini, where Clotilde's enthusiasm for food and cooking are more than compensation for her occasional lapse into american English. Snobbery intended! Call an aubergine an aubergine I say and not an egg plant! By the way, I think I would go for the rubbing in method to produce my crumble next time as it was more a big lump of dough than a crumble once I had whizzed it in the processor.

I wanted to keep the starter simple, not only because this was to be a lunch but also because the main course was going to be rather filling. We didn't manage to find any smoked haddock for the choucroute so cheated by adding some smoked salmon instead and so to four smallish unneeded offcuts I added some succulent slices of cantaloupe melon et voilà, almost instant starter. Melon goes well with Parma ham but for us non meat eaters it goes just as well with the strong taste of smoked fish, especially salmon.

So to the pièce de résistance. The recipe said it was "easy" and on reflection it was not difficult but rather fiddly trying to get everything ready to asssemble at the same time. I shan't go through every process as this is not a food blog, but suffice to say that the fruits de mer included cod fillet, salmon fillet, mussels, big juicy prawns and surprisingly inexpensive langoustines. The latter apparently can be translated as scampi or Dublin Bay prawns. Suffice to say they look spectacular but a good prawn will always get my vote.

The sauce was a concoction of much reduced riesling with the cooking juices from the mussels, cream and butter.

The resultant meal was a success. We contemplated eating outside but occasional cold gusts of wind meant we compromised and drank the rosé cava al fresco but ate inside. I could have done with a bigger dish on which to display the sauerkraut and its garnish in all its glory but it made quite a spectacle in any case.

I think this is going to be one of those halcyon days which you always think you will remember but probably don't. In the end it doesn't matter a lot as it is the enjoyment of the moment that really counts and today is replete with wonderful moments.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Back to the country and connections

A brief explanation of my apparent absence from the blog world. We have been in Lille doing house things and entertaining our first guests. The latter was a most enjoyable experience and we feel a sense of vindication of our decision given favourable feedback on the house and Lille. The weather was, for the most part, attrocious with strong winds and torrential rain.

Still no internet connection and "any day" has stretched into "any week". We have come back to Rumaucourt for a long weekend - today is a national holiday - and Mothers' Day on Sunday, as well as an internet connection.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

At last, wisteria!

From my vantage point in the office at what I am going to call chez nous campagne, I have a perfect view of the wisteria that atops the kitchen door which gives onto the cobbled yard. It is divine. Long delicate grape-like bunches of pale lavender coloured flowers hang delicately amidst the fresh, cool foliage. A wisteria in full bloom never fails to fill me with positive, slightly nostalgic feelings and to improve or further enhance my mood.

I have had an extended relationship with this superb shrub. Fascinated since a visit to Sissinghurst, once the home of Vita Sackville-West, many moons ago, it has been an ambition of mine to possess a wisteria, if such a thing were possible.

Back in 1988 when recently moved to a house in London, SW19, we were given maybe 3 small sticks purporting to be wisteria. These we dutifully planted and tended with some success, at least on the leaf front. The fence beside which I had planted these fledglings was swathed in wisteria potential. The garden immediately behind was the home to an established shrub which blossomed abundantly every year to my part pleasure - from the first floor back window - and part disappointment and envy. This chagrin was compounded by our next-door neighbours who somehow managed to get onto such good terms with said wisteria's proprietors that they were allowed to unfurl many metres of foliage and flowers and deck them around their own garden. Instant wisteria!

Of course this was completely unacceptable and unreasonable. We were scandalized and outraged, quite justifiably.

I moved out of the house after six years without seeing as much as one frond of flowers on our authentic plant. True to form of course the next year it flowered.

One of the biggest thrills of becoming the new owners of 34JJR is that at last I have a mature wisteria plant, indeed the main stem is almost a trunk as it is so established. I think perhaps Madame Herbeau may have been a little over zealous in her pruning and the late spring means that it was nowhere near as advanced as the one I gaze at here. No matter, I have that to look forward to maybe in a couple of weeks and certainly next year.

I shall wait wistfully.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The shock of the old

There are some days when even one of the, supposedly, best preserved 45.88 year olds looks in the mirror and sees only the ravages of time. Today was such a day. The crows feet, previously almost imperceptible seemed as crevices and the admittedly large crown at the back of my head appeared to have quadrupled in size since last time I had washed my hair. Wearing my contact lenses for the first time in a week or so it was nigh on impossible to see what was going on back there even doing the hairdresser's trick of holding a smaller mirror to reflect into a bigger one. Methinks that varifocals cannot be far off.

Often the reality of it is that nothing has changed except your mood, the way you feel at that moment, the level of your confidence, how healthy your self-esteem is. Clearly today most of those were not in high positive figures.

I had the wizard idea of taking a picture of the back of my head with our digital camera and after many attempts, all of which were roughly the same shot ie the wrong one, though I could have sworn I had changed the angle, I managed to get one which framed the area in question adequately. Thankfully the damage is nowhere near as bad as I had at first thought.

It was quite unnerving though. Nearer 50 than 40, eons away from 30 and 20 something now a distant memory, all that is corporeal must inevitably deteriorate. Get over it!

Everything cuts back to reality of course and real life presents its real problems to give you something less vain to think about. One of the dogs has decided to make a visit next door and has found a length of fence which is loose to scrabble under.

She only wanted to have a look at what was going on chez the neighbours whose children are rather nice to her. She doesn't worry about what she looks like in the mirror. I doubt if she would know her own reflection.

Now there's a lesson...

Monday, May 08, 2006

A world without pain

What a wonderful place that would be. Well no, because the pain of which I write is the stuff made with flour and water and that comes in baguettes and croissants etc. Think of France and one of the very first thoughts that come to mind is usually French bread freshly baked and still warm, and the idyllic stroll to the boulangerie several times a day, stopping to chat with local characters along the way, checking out the chap in the stripey top wearing a beret and carrying a string of onions over his shoulder. Of course the reality can be a little different and these days not only is the price not fixed by the state, a fact I only became aware of today, but many buy theirs at the local Carrefour, Auchan or Hyper-U. Zut alors! we even freeze the stuff here then give it a quick blast in the microwave to defrost it. As much as this may appall the puritans out there it does at least mean that the staple of all French diets is always available. Till this morning that is.

Today is another national holiday. The phone rang early, before nine o'clock, with an urgent appeal from the family shop, le Panier de la Ménagère, to say that not only had the bakery not delivered the bread order but a customer had seen a notice in their window saying that they would not be open today. Rumours have it that Monsieur le Boulanger took off yesterday with his children to a theme park. He opened last Monday - which was also a holiday - so, perhaps reasonably, decided that he would have today off. Nothing wrong with that of course except he forgot to tell his clients!

Imagine the consternation. J-M shouting the odds at no-one in particular, just to voice his frustration, R trying to explain that there is no bread to regular customers and that the basket is vide, vide, vide! Me on the computer trying to find the phone number of the nearest supermarket - Hyper-U - and the other bakery, both of which are either closed or not answering. Max to the rescue when we remember that, exceptionellement, the Auchan just outside Douai is open today.

He rang a little later to say that there is plenty of bread to be had - and we are talking upwards of 30 baguettes alone - but the world and his wife is there and there are no trollies available.

It will at least be sorted out shortly. The folks of Oisy-le-Verger will get their bread. The shop will make no money at all out of the bread as we will have had to pay the retail price. The baker will get a number of ears full when he returns from his day out. It is raining, but that serves him right, according to more than one.

A world without pain? Maybe not.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Getting high on grass and eating al fresco.

I am not a grass fan, let me say that at the outset, but I am not against other people using it and I know that it is great if you want to relax, outside. So let's just say that when I realised the back garden here in Rumaucourt was full of the stuff and that it was getting to be knee high it didn't take me long to work out that it would be me who would be drawing the short straw. OK, as far as I am concerned a nice lawn is one thing but to achieve such a thing you can kiss goodbye to even one lazy week in the summer unless you have a gardener or it is bob a job week.

Luckily the grass here is not of lawn standard but is more your green covering for the semi field behind the house masquerading as a garden ie it just needed a good manly chop rather than a trendy or classic coupe and brushing.

First hurdle, the lawnmower: one of those big noisy petrol-driven jobbies with a thing on a string you have to pull in order to start the motor. I couldn't find a container anywhere and realised that even had I one it would be full every 2 minutes. It took me a few minutes but finally I got it going - I had even managed to adjust the height of the blade as I had worked out the wheels could be raised or lowered - and I strode confidently along behind it along the garden as if this was something I do on a regular basis.

Second hurdle, the grass: in patches it was a good 70cm high and although the blade managed to cut some of the length, most was just flattened and before long the motor cut out intermittently once the mulched grass had built up to the extent that the whirling of the blade was impeded.

I remembered not to push but to follow and I only had one slightly embarrassing moment when I almost got pulled into a flowerbed, not counting the numerous times I had my hat knocked off my head by an evil tree branch. I was wearing my rather fetching Moroccan "peasant" straw hat with up or downturned brim last sported at the Tower of London.

After a break for lunch I was back at it, refilling the tank when it ran out of fuel and regoing over everything a second time with the blade lowered a notch. It may not be to Wimbledon Lawn Tennis standards- actually the molehills have seen to that - but it is tidy and I felt quite high when I had finished. It was probably because it was so hot and I was out of breath and breathing in the petrol fumes.

I haven't changed my mind though, the bits of green posing as a lawn at our house in Hellemmes-Lilles are going!

Must get back to my home-made pissaladière and warm lentil salad. The (court)yard here is a bit of a micro-climate, lined on three sides with brick walls which soak up the sun's rays all day then release them during the evening. Far better than one of those trendy outdoor heater things. Surely they must be bad for the environment?