Friday, 31 July 2009

Why did the imam faint?

Once upon a time, an imam married the beautiful daughter of an olive oil merchant, whose dowry contained twelve jugs of the best, richest olive oil. She had a talent for cooking, and prepared many special dishes for her new husband. One night, she cooked a special dish of aubergines cooked in olive oil, and the imam enjoyed it so much that he asked her to cook it every night. For twelve days they feasted on the dish, but on the thirteenth night it didn't appear on the table. "Wife!" said the imam. "Where is the dish you usually cook for me?" "I couldn't make it tonight," said his wife, "because we ran out of olive oil. The imam fainted.

It's a great story, and like all great stories has endless variations. In one, the imam fainted with pleasure when he tasted the dish; in another, he fainted when he realised how costly it was in olive oil. According to a fascinating conversation I came across on LanguageHat, this last would fit with a popular stereotype of village imams, who are often seen as stingy killjoys, as in this wonderful Turkish expression: "You won't get food out of an imam's house, nor tears out of a corpse's eyes".

My own inclination though, having tasted various versions of this dish, is that he did indeed swoon with pleasure. There's a word for it in French, too: se pâmer, which according to Le Robert Micro means 'to faint right away; to be almost paralysed by a strong emotion or sensation'. Hmm. Shall have to find a suitable occasion to try that one out ... But anyway, back to aubergines. Ours have been fruiting for two or three weeks now, but yesterday was the first time they had deigned to produce more than two at the same time. So, demands of the pickaxe notwithstanding, it was time to make the imam faint.

For me, Turkey is right up there as one of the most enticing cuisines in the world, along with Italy and South India. What they all have in common is the ability to draw big flavour from the simplest of ingredients, together with a respect for vegetables as diva in their own right, not just as part of the chorus (are you listening here, France?). One of the most used (and oiliest) cook books on my shelves is Classic Turkish Cooking, by Ghillie Bhasan, who is the only person I know with the ability to make me yearn to eat bulls' testicles. But although she does have an Imam Bayeldi recipe, it's not, exactly, the one I use. I spent years on a quest to replicate the version I ate at a small restaurant in Akyaka, where if you're lucky it will turn up on the counter (no menu here) as one of mamma's specials. This is as close as I can get without actually wearing the headscarf. Here it is: Slow Food in action.

Imam Bayeldi

4 very fresh aubergines, cut in half lengthways
3 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced
8 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
three dessertspoons demerara sugar
5 large tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons dried currants
a teaspoon of allspice
sea salt
juice of a lemon
rather a lot of olive oil

This makes enough for four people, or two people for two days. It's really not worth doing less, as it's, frankly, a bit of a faff (but worth it).

Sprinkle the cut side of the aubergine with salt and set aside for half an hour or so to extract any bitter juices. Rinse and dry, make three horizontal cuts in the flesh (don't go through the skin), then drizzle very generously with olive oil and bake in a ceramic baking dish at about 180 degrees Celsius for half an hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the stuffing: fry the onions and garlic in a decent amount of oil, slowly, until they're completely transparent. Add the currants, allspice and a dessertspoon of the sugar and continue to fry until they are just starting to caramelise slightly. At this point, add the tomatoes and another dessertspoon of the sugar, turn the heat up a bit and cook for 10 minutes until all the juices have been released - it should all look a bit soup like at this point. Sprinkle the mixture with a good half teaspoon of salt, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated - around 40 minutes, maybe longer depending on the tomatoes, but keep an eye on it - it can burn. It should now look dark and rich. Attempt to avoid eating it all; instead, spoon it onto the aubergines, stuffing as much as you can down into the slits.

Pour over half a cup of water mixed with more olive oil (see?) and the remaining dessertspoon of sugar, cover the dish with foil, then bake for two hours at around 170 degrees Celsius, basting every half an hour or so with the liquid. Remove the foil for the last half hour or so of cooking. Squeeze some lemon juice over it and then let it cool for at least half an hour before eating it (I know, I know, but it is possible, honestly ...). Actually, it's even better the next day ...

This version would be found more often in eastern Turkey; in the Mediterranean west it would more often be cooked with a mixture of herbs (parsley, basil and dill) instead of the currants and allspice. We ate ours last night with some fried halloumi, courtesy of - wait for it - Lidl in Saint Girons, which also keeps us well supplied with 2 year old Parmesan, prosciutto, feta, stuffed vine leaves, marinated anchovies and all sorts of other odd delights, and a salad of courgette (what else!), mint and our first yellow cherry tomatoes. I'm still standing, but only just.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Karmic mumblings

There are times when all the Slowness in the world, all the Zen, all the good intentions, just don't cut it.

Remember my smug, look-what-I've-done-aren't-I-clever blog post of just a month ago? The one where I gloated about the stone terrace? Yes, well, my mother was right. Pride comes before - erm - problems. Aka the most frustrating, time consuming, back breaking and frankly tedious bit of work we've done so far. I think it's called karma.

The task was (is) to turn the mudslide outside the entrance to L'Atelier into a small terrace which doubles as a safe and attractive entrance into part of our new guest accommodation. The work was planned to coincide with our builders' summer break and we reckoned it would take us the best part of July, leaving August free to lay the stone on the sunny 'morning' terrace at the back of the house. Plans were drawn, materials ordered and delivered, tools made ready to dig it out and tame the slope and camber that always made me feel as though I were negotiating the house of horrors at the fair. It should have been a simple (well, okay, not too difficult) matter. So why did I get a kind of sinking feeling every time we contemplated it? Why did I feel that there was something about that whole bit of the garden that was somehow energetically unpleasant - just plain wrong?

We hacked and we pickaxed our way through some 25 centimetres of hardcore and solid clay. We levelled and we compacted and we measured and we redesigned: Plan 96A changed into Plan 98B as we found that a rainwater channel had been particularly badly concreted in, and grinding back the concrete merely resulted in destroying the channel meaning that a rapid creative rethink was required. We threw around ideas for constructing a small retaining wall where there was a difference in level between the terrace and the unhacked out ground. None seemed quite right, for no good reason. We pronounced ourselves stuck. I continued to feel uneasy.

This morning, after a day off lunching with new friends yesterday, we went back to work with trepidation to try out Plan 99C. Railway sleepers were sought, and possibly found. Yeeesss ... but. Sinking feeling still there. Spade and pickaxe in hand, I went off to explore the unhacked out ground above the terrace. And found the root of my dis-ease. The ground is higher there not because of a natural slope, but because it's a tip: it's an area of around 8 square metres, 40 centimetres deep (more in places), completely made up of discarded aggregate, sand, and cement. It's clearly been left/dumped there during building works over the years, and allowed to grass (well, weed) over. A few centimetres down it has, unsurprisingly, half turned itself into concrete. Words fail me. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

And it has to go. Not so much because of what it looks like, and not just because it's polluting, but because of what it feels like; because of the energy it harbours, which is negative, hard, offensive, insidious. You are unworthy, it says to the land, therefore I shall dump my merde on you. So this afternoon, in appropriately dank, miserable weather, we began the process of hacking it out, shovelling it into wheelbarrows and then into the trailer, and taking it away. We calculate that it amounts to around 8 tonnes.

I'm going out now. I may be some time.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Sequels 1

In the early hours of this morning, the bill to relax restrictions on Sunday trading was passed in the Senate, by just six votes - the lowest majority in the current term. There were no amendments; all the Senators' proposals were rejected, due largely to the ginormous pressure put onto the upper house by the government, which did not, it must be said, go down brilliantly with everyone: "The Senate's being transformed into a house of followers-on who just have one freedom: to say yes", commented one Senator.

There was no clarification forthcoming on the vexed issue of what constitutes an area of interest to tourists. The socialists argue that the new law will apply to the more than 6000 communes considered to be of tourist interest in the Code du Tourisme; the work minister believes that only the 500 communes listed as touristique in the Code du Travail will be affected. Can't you just see the famous French shrug of the shoulders ...

In spite of reassurances that the principle of le repos dominical remains inviolable, the opposition remains unconvinced. As one UMP renegade put it, "it's a change that dare not speak its name".

Sequels 2

So, Tuesday saw Claudine Louis in court in Foix, accused of offering assistance to a foreigner in an irregular situation (I wrote about her story here a few weeks ago). From its modest beginnings as a local news story, it was gradually taken up by the main news channels as word got around and the level of support for Claudine grew. Comments pages in national newspapers buzzed, generally (though not always, especially - unsurprisingly - in Le Monde) in Claudine's favour.

Nearly a hundred people were outside the courtroom on Tuesday. Before the hearing, the procureur announced a modification to her charges: although she was still being tried for aiding a clandestine, she would not, if found guilty, be fined or imprisoned. The trial, therefore, would go ahead to settle a point of law, not to penalise Claudine who, he accepted, had acted with the best of intentions.

The whole thing lasted for two hours and debate focused primarily on the fact that Obaï is a minor. The defence argued that a minor cannot be considered to be a clandestine or 'in an irregular situation', and that if she had failed to offer help, she could have laid herself open to the charge of 'non-assistance to a person in danger' - which is actually an offence here. The prosecution's argument is that if helping a young immigrant like Obaï is deemed to be legal and above board, it follows that equally no action could be taken against those who traffic children.

The verdict will be given on 8 September, after the arguments have been deliberated by three judges. Whatever the outcome, law will be made.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Is there more to Sunday than shopping?

Nicolas Sarkozy clearly doesn't think there is. When the Obama family visited Paris one Sunday earlier this year, he reported himself to be 'hugely embarrassed' that he had to make special arrangements for Michelle and the girls when they wanted to shop at an upmarket children's clothing shop. And of course loosening the restrictions on Sunday trading was part of his election manifesto. So just what's a bling bling president to do?

A quick run down of Sunday shopping in France as he is spoke: at the moment, food shops may open until midday (mais of course; how else would we all get our meat, our bread and tarts and the ready roast chickens that come complete with their roast potatoes?), but otherwise, basically, Sunday trading is verboten. Oh, unless, that is, you happen to have applied for a dérogation (dispensation), or you are a florist, or you hire out DVDs, or ... Or unless you're in an area designated as touristique, in which case you may sell books, or sporting goods, or 'items of a cultural nature', though not clothes or DIY stuff. Or unless it's one of the five Sundays that any commerce may open, given the authority of its maire. Or unless you're just a small, owner-run business with no staff, in which case you can open when the hell you like. Get the picture? Yes, it's a bit complicated. Some, though not I (more on that in a minute), would call it archaic and so consider that change was long overdue. Enter M. Sarkozy.

His first attempt was - how can I put it - not a success. There was massive opposition from both left and right, with large numbers of the ruling party decrying it as an attack on family values and the various socialist parties as an attack on workers' rights. It wasn't, however, wholly unsupported: one morning on Europe 1 breakfast news I heard a politician loudly proclaiming his inalienable right to take his family to IKEA on Sunday afternoons so that they could spend 'quality time' together. Hmm. Family love among the Billy bookcases and meatballs. Bet you're glad you don't live with him ...

So, another, watered down, version was cobbled together. Some would say compromise; many would say fudge. Shops in three of France's biggest metropolitan areas - Paris, Marseille, Lille (plus, originally, Lyon, until its UMP MPs kicked up a stink ...) - will be allowed to open on Sundays; employees will have to right to refuse to work, and employers will have to pay those who choose to work double time. In addition, local officials in areas deemed to be 'of interest to tourists' (which, let's face it, covers much of France) will be able to authorise Sunday opening - but in this case employers will be able to tell their employees which day they can take off and will be under no obligation to pay overtime. Very fair. Not.

Last week, the National Assembly voted in favour of the new bill. Just. Today, it's gone to Senate, the upper house. Debate is expected to last three days, with voting on Thursday. All the expectations are that it will go through, though this being France I wouldn't for one moment expect something as petty as a new law to be the end of the matter ...

According to opinion polls, the country is split pretty much down the middle. Interestingly, though, a quick trawl of a couple of Anglophone forums suggests that the vast majority of English speakers is hugely in favour of Sunday opening; two of the biggest grouses amongst Anglo Saxon immigrants seem to be not being able to shop till they drop on Sundays (and, in smaller towns, Mondays), and not being able to shop till they drop at lunchtime, when most shops, except the very largest grandes surfaces, close for two hours. What many immigrants may not know is that le repos dominical is regarded here as something of a divine right, acquired as it was in 1906 as part of a whole collective of workers' rights including paid holidays, state health insurance and the right to strike. Sundays are for family, and long lunches, and (for some) church, and for simply chilling. No wonder it provokes such passion: let it go, and you're on the slippery slope.

Personally, I like the fact that most shops aren't open on Sundays. I can't think of much worse than spending the day buying furniture or paint or, heaven forfend, clothes (I'm not exactly renowned for my love of buying clothes or indeed for my sartorial elegance, being happiest in shorts and tee shirt. And I cheerfully admit, much to the horror of friends, that although I've never set foot in a chic boutique, I'm not averse to scouring the rummage stalls in the markets and the rails at Emmaus ...). I don't have family, and I'm not a christian, but I see no good reason whatsoever why we shouldn't have one day a week without being faced with materialism and consumerism; I don't actually care which day of the week it is, so long as we all share the same one. Ah, but (M. Sarkozy would say) we need to stimulate the economy and increase growth. Well actually, I don't share that view either. My sympathies lie rather more with the décroissance movement - which is alive and flourishing here, and even sports its own monthly magazine. But best not get me started on that one.

Suffice it to say that you won't be finding me in the meatball queue on Sunday afternoons.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Losing the plot

One of the consequences of spending so much time Being A Builder is that we're fast losing control of the potager. It doesn't take much: I've come to the conclusion that one of Grillou's mottos is "if it can grow, it will": turn your back for five minutes et voilà - ten new ash trees. It's fair to say that we'd never win the village prize for the most orderly vegetable garden, unlike many of those we see around here that have been hoed to within a centimetre of their lives; I rather like weeds, which after all are just plants that happen to be growing in the 'wrong' place, and I seem for some reason this year to have lost the art of sowing in anything approaching a straight line. And anyway, life's too short. But when you need jungle gear and a machete to cut the courgettes (sigh), and you've completely lost your red onions, all the justifications about working organically (which we do) and taking the permaculture approach (which we also do) cease to be convincing. Even to me.

So today's promised afternoon swim at Lac Mondély was deferred in favour of a few hours on the end of a mattock. Not quite as life-enhancing, especially given the afternoon's bizarre and extreme heat. (It's pre-storm heat: we, like half of France, are on a dire storm warning for this evening - flying toads, iron girders falling out of the sky, that sort of thing. Can't come too soon. Candles are at the ready ...). But necessary.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the plot has been conquered, but I have found earth. And (so far) fifteen potimarrons, five aubergines, another 18 kilos of courgettes (what's the matter with them? Don't they read blogs?), forty or so peppers of various kinds and a few lingering mangetout. Oh, and a row of beetroot I'd quite forgotten about, and - yay! - the red onions.

I also found this little thing:

It's a pasteque - a water melon - but a particular variety for jamming (er - that would be making jam, not playing music ...). I'm inordinately proud of it, as it's the first one I've ever grown. I'm hoping it's going to have a mate or two ...

And look at these:

How many plants do you think there are? Nope. Try again. No, lower, lower.

There are two.

Last year I was so upset by the loss of all our tomato plants to blight that I swore I would never grow them again. But, well, that was then. And so I succumbed to buying five plants. This magnificent pair are Cornue des Andes, an heirloom variety which produces long, pepper shaped fruits. I also have two Green Zebra, and one Cerise. All of them have been planted, on the advice of the local paysans, on raised trenches; inside each trench is a deep layer of fresh nettles, followed by a layer of fumier, then a layer of earth, and finally a 12cm deep mulch of wood shreddings. I have everything - and I mean everything - crossed.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Saint Girons pushes the bike out

Our local town - or at least what passes for one in this part of the world - is Saint Girons, whose moniker is 'Capital of the Couserans'. When we first visited several years ago we were not, it has to be said, immediately wowed. It was a very hot and thundery afternoon, we'd been travelling for hours, and it was Monday, a day which much of rural France has not yet recognised. We wandered the old town, strolled along the river under the plane trees, admired the pink marble pavements, sat with a long apéro in the Bar de L'Union, and ate well at Le Bouchon. And yet. We moved on the next day as planned with something of a 'yes, but'.

Returning some time later, we began to find out that Saint Girons is a place that, if you give it half a chance, will get its hooks into you slowly. (Which it did, and continues to do, to both of us.) It doesn't have the medieval cuteness of, say, Mirepoix, nor a landmark chateau like that of Foix, or the lovely romanesque art and architecture of Saint Lizier just a couple of kilometres away. It does have some lovely old corners, complete with peeling stucco and ancient shutters, plus some wonderful and unreconstructed shopfronts (as a Francophile friend from England said "It's just so - well, French ..."); it has some surprisingly good shops, once you've found them; it attracts a bunch of more-than-usually interesting people; it has three rivers and views of the mountains. But more than all this, it has atmosphere.

And today it had atmosphere redoubled in trumps, because for the first time it hosted the finish a Tour de France stage finish. The Tour passes through Ariège pretty much every year; last year we watched it at our local col. Saint Girons has previously hosted two stage departures, but never a finish, so it was a Very Big Thing Indeed for our little town. We had, of course, to be there. As I think did everyone from within a hundred kilometre radius ...

It was a gorgeous, sunny, hot, tar-melting day. You couldn't walk a pace in the town centre without falling over a bicycle in some form of other:

After a Napolitaine and a pichet of rosé under the awning of our favourite pizzeria, we joined the throng making its way to the arrival area. As we crossed the bridge over the river, my jaw dropped: in front of us was the biggest media circus I've ever seen. It must have covered tens of hectares, with TV channels from round the world vying for the title of biggest microphone, most powerful dish, longest broadcasting van, fattest lens, loudest mouth, least tasteful kit. Then there were the team headquarters and vehicles, hospitality tents, sponsors' stalls and all the rest ...

We eventually found ourselves a spot about a hundred metres upstream, as it were, from the finishing line, and within site of one of the big screens so that we could watch the race as it progressed. It was not yet 3pm; we still had over two hours to go, but very soon the crowd was three deep. The temperature rose; we all took turns cooling off in a tiny strip of shade just behind us. We were entertained by a continuous stream of sponsors roller-skating up and down, plying us with their promotional stuff; I'm ashamed to report that we came away with five hats, four coasters, three pom poms, a flag, a bandeau, a rattling balloon and six sachets of washing liquid. Most prized of all, however, were the bottles of Vittel water that fortunately were being distributed in abundance.

The caravane, of course, was as ridiculously kitsch as ever:

Hmm. Nice - er - view.

And then we heard, and saw, the helicopters which announced the imminent arrivals of the riders; four riders had broken away from the peloton and it seemed likely that we were in for a sprint finish. We weren't disappointed.

It was almost a French victory but sadly Sandy Casar broke too early and was passed almost in front of our eyes by a Spaniard - all in the blink of an eye. Two minutes later the peloton arrived, and then it was all over. Well, almost. A Basque rider arrived 46 minutes late, to great applause. Then the poor guy was disqualified because the maximum permitted delay is 45 minutes ...

Obviously the official post mortems are yet to come, but it seemed to my amateur eye that our little town acquitted itself rather well, something that although we've only been here for two years makes me feel absurdly proud. The France Télévision broadcast of the race as it made its way through Ariège, seen from the helicopters, was utterly delicious - all rich greens and blues and staggering views - and can have done no harm at all to our department's reputation: if I didn't live here already it would have had me packing my gear into a removal van tomorrow.

But I do live here. And I love it. Can you tell?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Tales from the river bank

You may (or there again this may just be my inflated sense of self importance) have noticed that it's been a while since I blogged. Actually, it's been longer than you think, because thanks to the wonders of Blogspot, my blog posts can miraculously appear even when I'm not here. Ta da. But - and are you sitting down? - we've been on holiday.

Neither of us took much persuasion, especially given our builderless status, a fantastic weather forecast and the fact that it was the last week before les grandes vacances, when half of France - the juilletistes - would hit the road (swapping with the other half, the aoûtiens, four weeks later on one of those notorious Saturdays when the autoroutes sweat under 93 kilometre tailbacks). You can only admire a country that has spawned words for people who take their holidays during particular months. There is, though, no word in the French language for people who take their holidays outside la saison, quite simply because nobody really does, except retired camping-caristes, and Belgians. And us.

We decided, as we were throwing the tent into the car (such was the extent of our holiday planning) to head off towards the Aveyron Gorges, an area that made a brief appearance on the list of places we once considered considering living in. After a brief stop in Gaillac, a very pleasant, if rather bourgeois, wine town now inhabited by the previous occupants of Grillou and to which having made a complete cochon of myself at the dessert buffet of our (mercifully un-bourgeois) lunchtime restaurant I may just not be allowed back, we found ourselves pitching the tent right on the banks of the Aveyron, on a wonderful campsite a few minutes walk outside St Antonin Noble Val.

St Antonin was, according to Wikipedia, beseiged and taken by the English in the fourteenth century. No change there then. It's the kind of place that clearly has an expat 'scene', and where the British residents gather in the bars on huge tables after the Sunday market. There is an English estate agent, book shop, holiday home management service; English artisans, artists, craftsmen, marketeers, bar staff ... someone told me that apparently around 30% of the town's occupants are English, and another, smaller, percentage Dutch.

It is an undeniably attractive place: a medieval town that (with the exception of the town hall, which was set upon by Viollet-le-Duc - he of Carcassonne cité fame) hasn't been over-restored and where a good number of buildings are in fact in a fairly ramshackle state, which gives it a feeling of authenticity missing from some of the more 'perfect' towns and villages I've stumbled around in a numbed out stupor before now. But I have to admit that I was slightly put off from spending much time in the town itself by the expatiness of it all - not my scene, not my style.

Instead, we explored some of the smaller villages nearby, like this one, Penne:

and Caylus, where we stumbled upon this wonderful wolf catcher's house:

Mostly, though, we spent many hours simply chilling by the river, and I spent many more swimming in it, much to the bemusement of our fellow campers who couldn't see why I would choose to ignore the site's perfectly good swimming pool in favour of something so - well, unsanitised. One day, after a particularly long swim up river and back, I decided to float the last few hundred metres in my customary I'm-pretending-to-be-in-a-flotation-tank position - arms and legs spreadeagled, ears underwater so I can't hear anything - and let the current take me back to my tent. After a while I became aware of a bit of a commotion going on on the bank to my left, and eventually curiosity got the better of me. There was a crowd of nine or ten campers, of a certain age, two of whom were attempting to wade into the water clutching their walking sticks while the others looked anxiously on, clutching each other and their Yorkshire terriers. "Bonjour, m'sieurs dames!" I called gaily as I swam past, none the wiser to what was going on and by now bemused by the tutting and head shaking that was going on behind me. As I clambered out a few metres on, our camping neighbour came over to me and told me that apparently they'd seen me floating down river and had become convinced that I was a noyée - a drowned or drowning person. None of them could swim, but they'd been trying to reach me with long sticks; they had just started to call the pompiers when I miraculously returned from the dead, turned over and swam on. I was not, shall we say, flavour of the month after that.

This part of the Aveyron is much loved by canoeists and kayakists, and each day as I was swimming upriver I would encounter not a few of these on their way down, which allowed me to pass my time profitably doing a little research into national traits. The French would always greet me, of course, and even when there were twenty or more of them, each one would bonjour me separately - and expect to be bonjour-ed back, which as you can imagine became a little tedious after a while. Still, at least they didn't expect me to shake hands or kiss them, which would, let's face it, have been difficult. The Dutch would also greet me, rather more earnestly but only once per group, with a spokesperson; they would almost always ask (probably to practise their French) where I was going. The Germans were usually paddling so fast that they only had time to nod briefly. The English? They would look the other way and hope I hadn't seen them.

We had a great time. And then it was good to get back to Ariège and its earthiness, its un-polishedness, its wildness, its greenness, its expansiveness, its simplicity, its people, its particular energy. Beware, if you come here. Ariège, if you 'get' it, is addictive.