Thursday, 29 April 2010

Aaaargh ....

I am

pigged off by pigments
left cold by Castorama
livid about lime
grounded by gravel
trodden down by Tridome
sunk by sand
beaten by Bricodepot
pee'd off with paint
burnt out by Bricoman
done in by making decisions
bored with Mr Bricolage
defeated by dust
miffed at Leroy Merlin
crevée by cement
irked by IKEA
tired of tiles
demented by dirt
all done with Tout Faire.

I don't want builders' hands
I don't want dust everywhere
I don't want my garden to be invaded by tools and machinery
I don't want to keep spinning plates
I don't want 80% of my house to be a builders' yard
I don't want the other 20% to be a tip because I don't have time to take care of it
I don't want every shopping trip to be for 'materials'
I don't want to keep taking three steps forward and two and a half back.

I just want to sit in my garden
And listen to the birds
And weed and plant and hoe and look after my vegetables
And go for walks with the dog
And read a book
And go to the sea
And cook interesting things
And go shopping for ordinary things.

Rant over.

This too will pass.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Asperges syndrome

If there's one thing that finally tells me that the earth has turned and winter has gone it's asparagus. Part of that glorious sequence of firsts that marks the transition from spring into summer, along with the first broad beans, the first peas, the first strawberries, it's a classic example of seasonal eating: something to be longed for, gorged on, and then mourned for … all in the space of a few weeks. It’s a bit like a holiday romance: all the sweeter because you know it can’t go on.

In our restaurant days asparagus was a Big Thing: Norfolk was one of the UK's prime producers, and we had several of the best within five or ten kilometres. For six or seven weeks, barely a day would go by without asparagus making an appearance somewhere on the menu; indeed, many people would travel and book specifically to eat it. Here at Grillou, at the moment it's just us, but oh, it was still a happy day when I saw the first proper asparagus at Saint Girons market last week.

The French, for some reason I just can't fathom, traditionally despise green asparagus. Ditto the Dutch, the Belgians, the Spanish, the Germans ... and for all I know the rest of the world. Except, of course, we Brits, who worship it, even if it does make our pee smell. But for everyone else it's the fat white stuff that gets them going. Heaven knows why; it's watery, slimy, tasteless and invariably overcooked (whoops, there goes another pile of street cred ...), and you have to peel it. But at this time of year the markets are stuffed with it, and every stall is besieged.

The green stuff, on the other hand, is not easy to get hold of. To be honest, it's been one of the few food disappointments since moving here. Even the green asparagus I have managed to find has been monstrously fat like its white cousin. But ... this year we have a new producer at our market. And they're selling no less than 9 varieties and grades of asparagus, including - oh deep joy - two sorts of green: the fat stuff, and real, proper thin spears. No carefully weighed, neatly trimmed bunches here: there are great mounds of it, lying loose for the picking, for only 2.80 euros a kilo. We bought some last week and it was so good we went back for more - lots more - today. As I was shovelling handfuls of it into a piece of newspaper a French woman, curious at my buying habits, asked me what it tasted like. Now that's not an easy question. In the end I broke her off a piece of try raw. Her eyes lit up. She bought four kilos. The revolution is here ...

Tonight we ate asparagus with penne, lardons, crème fraîche and parmesan. We followed it with these:

Well, maybe not quite all of them. The rest, and another 2 kilo box like them, will be transformed into jam tomorrow. The first year we moved here, I couldn't understand why I couldn't find any strawberries in June. I was too late: although there are a few varieties around later on in small (and expensive) quantities, the main crop comes at the end of April and very beginning of May. No tennis strawberries here ... But as you read this, jam will be being made in humungous quantities all over the south of France - which leads on to one of life's great unanswered questions: just what do French households do with the vast amount of jam that they all seem to make each year?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Normal life

So, over the last month or so we have - against all odds - managed to resume something of a (more) normal life. That doesn't mean we've stopped the réno and are now swanning round like retired gin-swilling colonels (heaven forfend ...) but it does mean that we've actually left the premises on more than one occasion: to go to the market, to drink une noisette on a café terrace, to see friends. Seeds have been sown, plantlets have been planted. Birds have been watched and listened to. Sun beds have been sat upon. A few days break for each of us on our own, plus a camping holiday together, have been planned. And I've taken up a completely unexpected, out-of-the-blue opportunity to do some work that I love, away from Grillou but only a few minutes up the road, over the next few months.

We've spent much of the time outside, clearing and cleaning and laying another stone terrace. Not a whole lot has progressed inside the house. But ... I'm beginning to hear the spaces between the words again, and to see Grillou as the house that we fell for over three years ago, not just as The Project. The weather has helped: it's been truly glorious and springlike for much of the time. The garden has suddenly come to life, full of blossom and tulips; the grass is growing, the first leaves are just beginning to unfurl and the roses are in bud. In many ways this is the most delightful time of year here - the birds are singing their socks off, snow still covers the peaks, the hillsides are white with the blossom of wild cherry and plum and vibrant green with new growth, purple orchids are everywhere, the markets are bursting with asparagus and strawberries. The sun is warm enough that you know you're in the south of France, but not so hot that you can't walk in it or work in it. Layers of clothes are shed, and legs see the light of day. Chilled rosé and ice cold beer take over from warming reds and hot chocolate.

Enough already of the walking commercial. But you might just want a tiny peep ....

Blossom on the cherry tree that we planted last year ...

... and quince blossom, amazingly delicate and almost exotic.

Looking towards L'Atelier d'Artiste ...

... and its dining terrace.

Oh, yes, the hairy thing in the last photo is Nouille, or Noodles, the latest addition to the Grillou clan. We adopted him from a family who found themselves having to return to the UK after living many years here; they, in turn, had adopted him when he appeared one day at their village bins, apparently abandoned. He's three years old, bilingual, and a Labrit (a type of Pyrénéen sheepdog); we think he's far too independent (aka stubborn) to have been the working dog that he was bred to be, which is probably why he was abandoned - one of the less endearing traits of some French farmers. He's also completely eccentric, besotted with people, has a real sense of humour and is wonderful company. Look away now if you're not a dog person, but if you are ...

I'd forgotten: you can never disappear up your own seriousness when there's a dog around.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Swinging in Mirepoix

Hah! That got your attention, didn't it ...? But I'm talking about a jazz festival, dear reader, a jazz festival ...

For the last fifteen years the little Ariège bastide of Mirepoix has kicked off the festival season by hosting three days of New Orléans style swing each Easter. It's not the kind of music I'd travel halfway across the world for, but - weather permitting - it's always a good bash with lots of people and a great atmosphere. And this year, after two rainy years, the weather permitted. So, true to our promise to resume something of a more normal life, we went.

That's the omelette géante. As usual, we declined it on the grounds that it always turns out like the worst kind of scrambled egg: dry, solid, and cuttable with a knife. Yuk. (And anyway, it's only made with 1000 eggs, which is mere small fry compared to other Easter omelettes - at Bessières near Toulouse, for example, the Confrérie Mondiale de l'Omelette Géante et Pascale (!) use 15,000 eggs and 4 litres of oil to cook an omelette 4 metres across which ends up weighing, with its pan, more than two tonnes.) Instead we joined in the annual game of Trying To Get A Table at our favourite café, Le Saint Maurice. Which unfortunately happens to be everybody else's favourite too, because its tables are right in front of Les Halles where the music happens, the staff are great, and they cook a mean omelette-frites. It can be a protracted game, this one, because once installed people don't move on for several hours, but while I was attempting in vain to make a noise with a trumpet, John spied a prime table and unusually for him managed to leap on it before anyone else.

[An aside. He used - before he met me of course - to be terribly English, as in "after you" and "I'm really awfully sorry, but you've trodden on my foot", but living with me, and living in France, seem to have knocked the last bit of English reserve out of him. A few weeks ago, for instance, he picked up a gem of a CD in a local depôt vente and then left it with two or three other items ready to take to the till; when we came back to collect the pile, the CD had gone. Determined to get the CD back even though he'd not yet bought it, rather than being typically British-stiff-upper-lippish about it he tracked down the 'culprit' and (politely!) confronted her. She, it turned out, was desperate for the CD to play for her daughter who was about to leave for the States: what if, she suggested, she buy it; she could - ahem - copy it and then give it to him. Phone numbers were exchanged; she did, she did, and she did; and John got to practise some non-building French and make a new friend].

The weather was perfect ...

... and the square was full of people all afternoon, mostly doing what we were doing - drinking cold rosé or beer and enjoying the buzz and the music - though presumably there must have been some more serious musicians around as there were some serious displays of musical instruments too.

The square is surrounded by almost perfectly preserved medieval arcades and is almost impossibly pretty - one reason why a few years ago it saw a mini-invasion of retired Brits, attracted by the idea of cheap living in A Place in the Sun; many have now sold up and left or are in the process of leaving. I met one such recently and asked why: partly boredom, he told me, as in WTF shall I do now I've renovated my house; partly the realisation that France is no cheaper than the UK. Some, I gather, miss grandchildren; others miss - er - British supermarkets :-0 ... Yesterday I heard just one English voice over the whole day, an out and out record for Mirepoix. The French, I gather, are shedding no tears ...

For some, though, the day was clearly all too much ...

The music was pretty good too. Especially this lot, the Lulu Swing Quartet, who hail from Montpelier way and play fantastic gypsy jazz à la Stéphane Grapelli and Django Reinhart. Enjoy!