Friday, 26 September 2008

A salutary tale ... part 2

I'm going to invent a new Slow Holiday. It's called Slow Glue Scraping. Very therapeutic.

Yes, we're still doing it.

Monday, 22 September 2008

A salutary tale ...

... of how if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Back in spring, our local M. Bricolage (DIY warehouse - Grillou's second home) was running a promo on seagrass carpeting - 5.99€ a metre length. Now we've got some upstairs in our little TV / music salon, and apart from being an absolute pig to haul up our twisty stairs (mutual murder was a distinct possibility for a while) and then cut, it went down well enough and looks great. So, brilliant, we thought - just the thing to cover up the white tiles in the lower half of our salon proper that make it look like a public toilet. We bought some, along with several rolls of cork insulation and some Neoprene glue to hold it all down. The statutory week to let it settle, a few more blisters, et voilà ... down, fitted and looking good. Oh, we thought we'd been so seriously clever...

A few weeks ago, it grew a beard, overnight. A green beard. My favourite French brico forums were consulted; it was pronounced to be a form of mildew; not, apparently, uncommon. No big deal - a squirt of dilute bleach, a rub down with a brush and then a hoover should deal with it. And so it did.

A week or so after that, I noticed a strange smell in the room. Our carpet, though still clean shaven, was reeking - not the normal seagrassy smell, which is quite pleasant. No, this was something else again. A squirt of slightly less dilute bleach, a rub down with a brush and a hoover, and it was gone. Except it wasn't. It came back again. Now the salon smelt like a public toilet instead of looking like one. Out came the bleach bottle again, etcetera.

Now I don't like being defeated. I like going forwards, not backwards. So I tried the old bicarb trick. Sprinkle bicarbonate of soda over smelly carpet, leave it for 48 hours, hoover and end of smell. In mitigation, I do have to say that it always worked for the smell of wet dog. It didn't, however, work for smelly seagrass.

Please read the next sentence carefully, because you may never read it again. I was defeated. I gave up. Beaten by a bit of fibre. One of my 'virtual' forum pals reckoned that it was always going to happen, because the seagrass had almost certainly been incorrectly dried and stored and was reacting with its latex backing (the words 'Greeks' and' gifts' spring to mind somewhere ...). So, yesterday, John - not me; there is a limit to my acceptance of defeat, as there is to my ability to tolerate destruction - cut it up and threw it out. It's currently acting as a ground cover mulch on a new bed in the potager, but the smell is now so strong that I fear it's taking over the village, 3km away, and tomorrow it's going to have to go to the déchetterie. In spite of the fact that its presence there will not further endear us to the rather fierce déchetterie attendant, who already has us marked down as beyond the pale because we omitted to sweep up after ourselves on our first visit.

And today we spent many hours trying to remove the Neoprene glue from the tiles, because yes, the glue smells too. Have you ever tried to remove Neoprene glue from tiles? No, I thought not. I expect we'll be doing the same tomorrow. And the day after.

Oh how we laughed.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Farewell to summer

Unlike the last couple of years, when wall-to-wall sun and warm temperatures in Ariège have lasted pretty much through to November (I swam in Lac Mondély in October last year), Metéo France's prognosis for this autumn is - well, autumnal. So when we spotted a miniature grey-free gap last week, we threw the tent into the car and within an hour were gone, this time towards Banyuls sur Mer in Roussillon for a couple of days coastal walking.

Banyuls is an old wine town just 12 kilometres from the Spanish border, where the last vestiges of the Pyrénées meet the Mediterranean. It has great character, a kind of faded elegance and a very cheap municipal campsite! I'd hate to be there in August, but outside la belle saison it's a charming place - laid back but still very much alive, unlike some of the big purpose built resorts where the shutters go down on the first day of September. People go there to taste and buy wine, to eat fish, to swim and snorkel, to walk the coast path that winds its way in and out and up and down amongst the criques and most of all, it seems, just to stroll around, watching everyone else do the same thing. We did all of those things, and managed to fit in a trip to Cadaqués as well.


Cadaqués was once a small shabbyish fishing village in a setting of spectacular natural beauty on the Costa Brava, close to the Cap de Creus; it was immortalised by Salvador Dalí, who had a house there, and during the 60s and 70s became a remarkable arty-hippy hangout where happenings happened. Until, that is, it got discovered by Barcelona's beautiful people, and Americans, and became chic. Cadaqués is undeniably attractive, but to be honest I found it to be just a teensy bit up itself and I would, I think, have much preferred it in its shabby-but-not-chic days. It's also the only place I've ever been where you're required by municipal decree to pay for parking by the minute (it's 0.03567 euros per minute or part thereof. I'm not kidding). We didn't though, because I'm mean and because I have a fully functioning built-in rip-off detector; instead we found a dingy kind of disused wide alleyway thing that was full of old French cars and the kind of travellers' vans that have tipi poles on the top, so we parked there. For free. And in a back street restaurant that was heaving with local workers and French visitors, we managed to find some affordable salad and sardines, along with a lively debate about the sorry state of the Parti Socialiste with a couple from the Auvergne. So all was not lost.

Being a lover of simple things, though, perhaps the best bit of the trip for me was on Cap Béar, close to Banyuls, watching a Bonelli's Eagle circling and hovering on the air currents for almost an hour - a truly lovely sight. The same night, a storm of mammoth proportions regaled us with almost continuous thunder and lightning for over four hours; in its wake rose the tramontane. The tramontane is the local wind, the Languedoc version of the Mistral, which erupts every so often and gusts at anything up to 90 km an hour, usually for at least four days. It's not pleasant, and is said to drive the locals mad. Which makes daily life, not to mention camping, a constant battle and is one reason why we chose not to live there. So with some sadness (and not a little hilarity, given the manic-ness of the wind) we packed up and came home.

Looking south from Cap Béar

And arrived back here to a different season. There are fallen leaves everywhere, there's snow on Mont Valier and the evenings seem shorter, somehow. Last night we drew the curtains for the first time since March.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Very Bizarre Things

Now here's a Very Strange Thing.

A couple of months ago, ever hopeful that one day in my current lifetime we might just be ready to open for guests, I registered the domain name Haven't done anything with it yet mind you - it's sitting there waiting to see some action. (As indeed is our future guest acccommodation. But we won't go there just now).

One night in August, when it was just too hot to go to bed, I was idly googling Slow and Slow Holidays. Other Slow Holiday sites are strangely almost non-existent, but I came across one site called 'A slow holiday in the Auvergne'. Bizarrely, it had an almost identical domain name: But even more bizarrely, as I discovered when I went to have a look, it refers to a gîte in a renovated corps de ferme owned and run by another two north Norfolk escapees, Andrée and Gary Lloyd, who moved at around the same time as we did. And more bizarrely still, they're people that we knew, albeit vaguely, because they owned Norfolk's iconic cook shop Head Cook and Bottlewasher, in North Walsham, which we (along with just about every cook in north Norfolk) used to zoom along to whenever we were in dire need of something esoteric for the restaurant kitchen. If you couldn't get it there, you couldn't get it anywhere; even if you didn't need anything, you'd come away with some find or other that would quickly become completely indispensable, like Exopat baking sheets. In fact I blame Andrée unreservedly for the ridiculously overflowing contents of my kitchen drawers.

Maybe it's not so strange after all. Norfolk was pretty big on Slow - at the point that we left, the number of Slow Food members was growing hugely, and Aylsham was one of only two Cittàslows in England; since then Diss, also in Norfolk, has become the third English Cittàslow. At the same time, the restaurant and hospitality world was changing fast. We called it the Starbucks Effect: an increasing number of customers were becoming innoculated with the big-chain virus so that they no longer knew quite how to deal with small, quirky one-off businesses like ours. "But why aren't you open all day?" they'd screech through our closed door at 11am, "I want a tall skinny vanilla latte and I want it NOW and there's nowhere to get one and it's just APPALLING ...". Or they'd shake their heads in utter bemusement at the fact that we chose to close on Monday each week, even Bank Holidays. Or that we didn't cram more people in. Or have two sittings ("But you could make SO MUCH MONEY!"). Or that we chose to do things differently, not big-business-ly. It may or not be a coincidence that a number of small business people that we knew, or knew of, were also making the decision to move on at around the time that we did.

Anyway, at some point in the future we hope to collaborate with Andrée and Gary in offering two centre Slow Holidays. In the meantime, if you fancy a whizz - sorry, trundle - down to Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne, check them out here.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

We have aubergines ...

... and yes, there is a goddess. After the tomato tragedy, it's just brilliant to be able to pick our first aubergines; I tried to grow them once in north Norfolk - the plants grew leaves well enough, but when they realised I wanted fruit as well they just laughed at me, and promptly died.

Actually, I have a bit of a love hate relationship with aubergines. When they're well cooked, they're sublime - the very best aubergine dish I ever ate was in Akyaka in south-west Turkey, in a restaurant called The Golden Roof. It was so simple - a version of Imam Bayeldi - but the dish was so full of flavour and melted so gloriously in your mouth that it was quite impossible to eat it with your eyes open. In fact I can quite see why the imam fainted. On the other hand, there can be little more disgusting than an improperly cooked aubergine. I have a friend whose aubergine dishes - in particular her baked aubergine - fill me with dread and an impending sense of doom as they appear onto the table and I realise that once again I'm going to have to munch my way through something that manages to be both slimy and crunchy at the same time. (I suspect that if the imam were eating with us he'd faint again, though this time for wholly other reasons ...).

Anyway, when I've had my fill of grilling my very own aubergines on the plancha, it'll be this aubergine ragù that I'll be making next. In one form or another it was always one of the most popular dishes at our restaurant, converting many an aubergine-sceptic in the process (it's amazing what a no-choice menu can do). Here it is:

Aubergine ragù

For every two people you'll need:

one medium sized aubergine
one onion and 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
a few springs of thyme
a couple of teaspoons each of cumin and fennel seeds
a couple of teaspoons of ground coriander seeds
3 or 4 peperoncini (small red chillies), finely chopped or ground, or better still, some Turkish pepper flakes if you can get hold of them
5 or 6 fresh tomatoes, chopped small (or a tin of chopped tomatoes)
2 teaspoons of tomato purée - sun-dried tomato purée is especially good
a large glass of decent red wine (and another one to drink while you cook!)
a pinch of saffron threads

This is a really easy thing to cook and is invariably delicious, with one proviso - that you don't rush it. You want to extract maximum flavour from every single ingredient, so s-l-o-w is the word. Really push those onions; wait till those aubergines are golden; let the sauce reduce properly. No corner cutting.

Grind the saffron threads in a pestle and mortar and add a little warm water; it will infuse while you prep the rest. Chop the aubergine into smallish dice, coat it in olive oil, then either roast it in a medium hot oven until it's golden (about 15 minutes), or pan fry it. Aubergine soaks up oil like nobody's business, but don't be tempted to keep on adding more - after a little while it will give it all back up again and all will be well. Meanwhile cook the onions, with the thyme leaves, for ten minutes or so in a little olive oil, add the garlic and cook for two or three minutes then turn up the heat and add the spices (not the saffron) and cook for yet another couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, red wine and tomato purée, boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol then let the sauce simmer for an hour, slowly, until it's thickened and reduced by two thirds. Add the aubergine and cook gently for another twenty minutes or more to blend the flavours. Finally, add the saffron infusion and cook for just another two minutes.

The result is an intriguing, Moorish-ish, Turkish-ish blend of eastern and western flavours, though if you don't fancy that you can vary the seasonings however you like. I especially like this with farinata, a divine Ligurian flatbread made with chick pea flour and water and baked at a scarily high temperature; you could serve it with pasta, or rice, or just about anything. And it keeps incredibly well - in fact it's better the next day, and even better the day after that.

Serve it to your right-on veggie friends and they'll kiss your feet. Serve it to dyed in-the-wool carnivores and they won't turn a hair (but for heaven's sake don't tell them their dinner was vegan ...).

Monday, 1 September 2008

Slow Walking on the Plateau de Beille

We've just spent a couple of days camping and walking in Haut Ariège, on the Plateau de Beille and in the Haute Vallée d'Aston nearby. And very lovely it was too.

Although it's only just over an hour from home, this part of Ariège is so different from our 'end' that it feels as though you've travelled a lot farther. With a few exceptions, such as the valleys of Vicdessos and Oriège, most of the habitation is centred around the Ariège river, which runs from its source high in the mountains close to Andorra northwards towards Tarascon, Foix and eventually joins the Garonne 164 kilometres later. South of Tarascon, the valley sides are so steep that the houses and farms cluster close to the river; unlike the west of Ariège, where farmhouses and granges dot the slightly more gentle and greener slopes surrounded by large swathes of land, in Haut Ariège people live much closer together. We spent not a little time fruitlessly househunting in this part of the department before it dawned on us that the terrain simply didn't offer the kind of house that we wanted. The N20, the road to Andorra, runs parallel to the river, and - how can I put this? - it ain't quiet. On an average weekend it feels as though all of Toulouse and half of Tarn et Garonne are en route to Andorra to fill up with cheap pastis and cigs. In fact they probably are.

For all that, it's a spectacular area, and once you leave the N20 behind is as silent as you could wish for. The Plateau de Beille is a high altitude plateau, better known for being the Pyrénées' most important cross country skiing area and a frequent stage finish for the Tour de France. Now I'm not a skier, and haven't been one since a memorable school skiing trip during which I entered into the kind of relationship with a T-bar that's really best not described. But the walking is great. You can drive up to the ski station, which means it's one of the few walking areas where you can start walking at an altitude of 1800 metres. We're Slow Walkers, not peak baggers; we’re not interested in how fast we can cover a path, how much height we can gain or how many kilometres we can walk, nor are we up for scary scrambles, precarious footholds or anything that needs crampons. Slow Walking is about taking time to be in and contemplate our surroundings with all our senses; to stand and stare just as often as we want to; and to enjoy the simplicity of walking without the need for challenging goals. So the Plateau is our kind of high altitude walking: no ropes, no vertigo, no scree, but still enough ascent and descent to feel that you've had a decent workout, plus 360 degree views of lots of the big peaks in France, Spain and Andorra. There was one point where we could see both Canigou and Mont Valier, which if you know your Pyrénéan geography you'll realise is quite remarkable.

On the second day we walked in the Haut Valléé d'Aston, where so many flowers were still out that it almost felt like spring.

We gathered bilberries and wild raspberries, spent over half an hour watching a golden eagle circling then perching in a tree not far above us, walked through clouds of butterflies, and I spotted my first ever Black Wheatear.

The sun shone, the cow bells on the estives (high summer pastures) rang loud, I came across the most beautiful beech tree, and the river soothed our hot feet. Am I making you envious? Good.