Saturday, 26 September 2009

You know you've got an attack of bricoitis when ...

The two of you pounce on the newly arrived Brico Depot catalogue and fight over who's going to read it with their cornflakes.

You can recite the names, dimensions, characteristics, qualities and prices of 276 shower trays, 198 taps, 17 sink wastes, 94 door handles, 8 shower doors (the only ones in the whole of France that (a) fit and (b) you like), 53 radiators, 148 floor boards and 7439 bathroom lights. From memory.

You read Maison et Travaux in bed. In fact it's all you do in bed.

Your calendar hasn't been turned over since March.

Your hands are multi coloured, multi textured, and covered in scars.

Your morning meditation consists of half an hour removing splinters.

You can discuss R values and U values as easily as once you talked about food, and you know by heart the cubic metreage of all your rooms, but you can't remember your phone number.

You no longer need to file your nails. The sandpaper does it for you.

You go out wearing your building clothes.

You never go out without a tape measure.

You seriously think about buying a white van.

You suddenly realise that it's nearly October and you haven't had a day off since the end of June.

You know all the staff at all the local brico outlets by name.

You buy fromage frais to make paint with, not to eat.

Your builder asks you to buy a buchon brut femelle, and you know what it is.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

That old chestnut ...

When we arrived at Grillou two years ago, like most house buyers here we inherited a lot of Stuff, in our case mostly wood of one sort or another (oh, and a pony). Mounds of it, here, there and everywhere: wood for burning, wood for making steps and structures in the garden, old beams, old oak floorboards stashed away in the porcherie, bits of cut down trees, slices of oak tree 6 centimetres thick ... and then there was the chestnut.

The chestnut was obviously Important. It had a mention on the inventory that came attached to our buying contract, and was valued at 400 euros. It had been used by our predecessors as volige in the part of the barn roof that had already been relaid, and we assumed that we'd use the rest of it to finish the job. The Perfectionist, however, had other ideas: "Merde alors, you can't use it for that!" he spluttered. Or words to that effect. And set out to find a hundred and one other places where it could be mis en valeur, as they say here - a wonderful expression which translates roughly to showing it off to its best advantage.

Reader, he was right. It pains me to say so, but he (nearly) always is. Don't you just hate people who are right (nearly) as often as you are? Anyway, moving swiftly on ... what looked like a fairly unpromising, if large, pile has so far metamorphosed into, amongst other things, window sills, cladding for walls and cupboards, and skirting boards.

Part of the original pile. Not exactly promising, huh?

And Pink Van Man has revealed himself to be a bit of a woodworker, on the quiet. Well, not so quiet, actually, given that Grillou has been echoing with the sound of circular saws, planers and sanders of all description over the last fortnight or so. But he has a real feel for wood, and loves working with it. I do too, and for the last few days we've had a bit of a wood conveyor belt going on: he's been cutting, scribing and machine sanding the skirting boards, then passing them to me in my makeshift atelier (the garage) where I've been hand finishing and then oiling them with linseed oil - six coats so far and counting ...

In the atelier ...

Do you remember those magic colouring books that were all the rage hundreds of years ago, when I was nobbut a kid? You 'painted' the page with water, and a picture in different colours appeared, by magic. Well, oiling chestnut that's been really well weathered and then sanded is a bit like that; as soon as you wipe the oil onto the wood, the most amazing grain patterns appear, as if from nowhere. And it's the most beautiful, rich wood, too ...

Amazing grain

After oiling, and before

Now that sure as hell beats digging out hard core ...

Friday, 11 September 2009

The little prince is saving his planète

So he's done it. Unless you've had your head in a paper bag for the last couple of days you'll know that Nicolas Sarkozy has put his money (or rather, our money) where his mouth is and introduced a carbon tax. From the beginning of next year, businesses and households will pay for the privilege of using carbon-emitting fuels at the starting rate of 17 euros a tonne.

Assuming, of course, he manages to steer his proposals unchanged through both houses of parliament by then. And that, from my armchair vantage point, is not looking entirely likely. Because although in theory politicians from all parties agree with ecologists that a carbon tax is necessary (Nicolas Hulot, France's tame popular ecologist, famously managed to extract a pre-presidential election promise from all the candidates that they would introduce a carbon tax if elected), now that push has come to shove most of them are finding reasons to disapprove: it's the wrong time; it will penalise the poorest families; it goes too far; it doesn't go far enough; it's too unwieldy to work; it's never going to change behaviour.

Now I'm no great fan of our president - people as hyper as he is scare me - but I have to concede a sneaking admiration for him on his determination to integrate green thinking into day to day politics. Not being one to underplay his own importance, Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself as a 'leader in the fight to save the human race'. And in spite of all the criticism and hyperbole flying round, I do actually believe he is genuine on this one. France is now committed to reducing carbon emissions to a quarter of the 1990 figures by 2050, and for several years now we've had decent financial incentives (and now interest-free loans) to install energy saving measures and renewable energy systems. For our petit prince, the new carbon tax is not 'just another tax', but a whole new way of looking at taxation - the first step in a fiscal revolution which will lead France into a post-petrol economy: he wants to shift the burden of taxation from labour towards polluting goods and services.

That's a pretty tall, and radical, order. The nitty gritty is that we'll all pay around 4 or 5 centimes more per litre of petrol, diesel and heating oil; a little less on gas; nothing on electricity, because it's almost all produced in nuclear power stations. All the money thus raised will then be returned to us: every household will benefit from a tax reduction (non tax payers will receive a 'green cheque') which will vary according to family composition and whether people live in the town or the country. Urban dwellers who use public transport to get around, and electricity for all their energy needs will therefore do nicely, thank you. People like us, in the middle of nowhere? Not so well.

There's a certain, rather comical, irony in all of this for us at Grillou. As some of you who knew us in our restaurant days may remember, we were pretty active in campaigning on the whole issue of carbon emission: we were England's first - and then only - carbon neutral restaurant, and we ran a carbon offset scheme for our guests and customers to balance the carbon emitted in their journey to us. And now, here we are living in a house with - yes, oil-fired central heating! We have become the polluters, and we shall pay. Don't get me wrong, of course we should pay. And one day, when (or rather, if) finances allow, we intend to replace our (German, and very efficient) orange monster of a boiler with an all singing all dancing wood pellet model. But carbon neutral we're not, nor will we be.

If I have one criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy's scheme it's that behaviour change needs more than willingness; it also needs resources - in this case, financial ones. And financial resources are in pretty short supply for the average rural household in France: people here simply don't have pots of savings into which they can dip to finance new heating systems, or less polluting cars, or photovoltaic or thermal energy; nor do they have spare disposable income to pay back loans, whether interest-free or not. Not only that, but if you already do all you can to minimise your energy use not so much from green conviction but because you can't afford not to, where's left to go?

Perhaps that's why two thirds of people here profess themselves to be 'largely unhappy' with the new scheme. Perhaps if they also saw hefty tarifs on food that's travelled 6000 kilometres to get here, or on air travel (which, bizarrely, remains exempt), or on goods imported from 'dirty' carbon countries; perhaps if they saw the building regulations for new build houses altered to require the use of renewable energy sources; perhaps if they saw their politicians and Eurocrats living and travelling more modestly: perhaps then they might feel less picked upon.

We shall see.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Glut gluttony

So, the rentrée has rentréed, The Perfectionist and Pink Van Man (aka the builders) are back, the sun still shines, and we're still barrowing loads of hardcore around the garden. (Was there ever a time when I didn't? Will there ever be one? Sigh). We're in the process of creating what we intended to be a car parking area. Note the past tense there, because once we'd cleared it of the inevitable toot and rubbish and old tree roots and nettles and rocks and half a metre thickness of moss and ivy, we suddenly saw it with new eyes: a lovely leafy, shady space with an equally lovely view south towards Col de la Crouzette. Much too good for a car park, methinks. So in a rare display of swift non-Libran decisiveness, I've converted it into a 'zone Zen'. More about that in due course - watch this space, as they say. Or rather, that one.

And in spite of - or maybe because of - the long, hot and dry summer we've been having here, our garden continues to throw food at us: glutting courgettes (yes, still) have been joined by aubergines and tomatoes and peppers and potimarron. The potimarron have been put to bed tucked up in straw, ready to feed us through the winter, while I exhaust every crevice of my creative brain (or at least what's left of it after yet another day shi - er, hardcore shovelling) to come up with Interesting Things To Do with all the rest.

Two stars of the dinner show have emerged this summer. We've enjoyed them both so much that we've eaten them again and again, and so thought you might like them too. Here they are.

A courgette soup ...

Actually, it's not really a soup - more like a lightweight broth, in the Italian style, which means that with some good bread it's good enough to eat for dinner and not as an entrée. For two people, you'll need:

Two or three new potatoes, in small cubes; 500 grams or so of courgette, ditto; a biggish onion, finely chopped; 2 cloves of garlic and a couple of sprigs of thyme, ditto; half a glass of white wine; 300ml vegetable stock; 200ml milk; and - erm - 4 pieces of La Vache qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese (I know, I know, but humour me here).

Fry the onion in butter until it's soft, then add the garlic, potato, thyme and a bit of black pepper and cook very gently, with the lid on, for a good 15 minutes or so. This is what the Italians call the soffrito stage: often skipped or skimped, it's what really draws the flavour out of the base ingredients, so don't rush it. Then add the wine, bring to the boil, reduce the heat again and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the stock and the courgette, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 15 minutes. Add the milk, then the cheese, stirring until it melts. Season. Don't ask how I came to have a few bits of Vache qui Rit lurking at the back of the fridge, but trust me: there's something about the lactic flavour of the cheese in this soup which is so seriously addictive that I unfailingly eat more of it than is good for me ....

... and an aubergine tart

This, for me, is pure, unadulterated summer comfort food; it contains just about every one of my to-die-for summer ingredients - olives, aubergines, tomatoes, anchovies, basil, mozzarella. And it's easy enough to put together after a hot day's shovelling. To make four good portions you'll need:

A ready-rolled flaky pastry case; 2 very fresh aubergines; 2 large tomatoes, a tablespoon of tapenade, some shavings of gruyère, a ball of mozzarella; and a dozen anchovies in oil. I'm addicted to Collioure anchovies, which are my summer treat, but anything that comes in a jar will be fine.

Cut the aubergines down their length into half-centimetre thick slices. You can, if you feel inclined and have the time, do the salting-and-rinsing thing, but to be honest I usually don't, because I haven't, and I'm not convinced it would make a blind bit of difference. Then fry them until they're golden on both sides. I suppose you could grill them if you have a thing about frying, but nice though grilled aubergines might be, they never acquire that lovely silky texture that a really good fried aubergine has and which for me is the essence of this tart. So I fry them in a mixture of olive and rape seed oil, which is the best combination I've come up with after years of experimenting (during most of which I pooh-poohed rape seed oil. Wrong).

Then simply put the tart together: lay out the pastry in a large metal flan tin - I use the type with the removable bottom, prick the base lightly, then spread the tapenade over it. Cut the aubergine slices in half across the (short) middle, and lay out half of them in circles. Slice the tomatoes thinly and lay half of them over the aubergines. Throw on some shaved gruyère and some torn up basil leaves. Then repeat the whole thing so you have another, identical, layer. Lay out the anchovies in a clock formation, then cover the whole thing with slices of the mozzarella. Bake at 220 degrees Celsius (200 degrees in a fan oven) for around 25 minutes, until the mozzarella is golden.
Here it is before ...

and after ...

And that, gentle reader, was my 100th post on Blogger! Thank you to all of you for your presence, your support, your comments, your emails, your humour. None of which I expected when I set out eighteen months ago just to write for the sheer pleasure of writing, whether anyone read it or not. So here's raising a glass of Minervois with you all to the next 100 ...