Sunday, 25 July 2010

Life after sawdust, and a taste of garlic

No matter how awful you think sanding a huge floor and a half is going to be, it's always ... worse. Given that John only has to look at a sanding machine for gouges the size of a ditch to appear miraculously in the wood, his contribution was limited to collecting the machine from the hire shop, and following me around holding its power cable. It was, of course, Muggins here who had to spend a twelve-and-a-half hour day wrestling with the thing, followed by the same the next day on my hands and knees, sanding all (51 metres worth ... groan) the edges.

I'll spare you more pictures of me in tellytubby overalls and the orange Etap headgear thingie I picked up from the Tour de France caravane; suffice it to say that three days and seventeen showers later the job's finished, with 'just' the more artistic bits - as in at least seven days on my hands and knees - to come. Fortunately the weather shone on us, so to speak: after the recent long and very hot spell, it proceeded to absolutely p*%! down, without break or let up (but with thunder, lightning and the usual array of power cuts), for 48 hours, during which time it was so dark that you could be forgiven for thinking that the sun had migrated to warmer climes.

Even floor-sanding tellytubbies have to eat, though, and when you've got sawdust in every orifice the need for feelgood food that will cut through all the crap becomes paramount. And so there was nothing for it but an ag and og.

Ag and og (or spaghetti aglio e olio, to be more precise) is so much a part of me that I've just had to rack my brains to think how I first came upon it or to remember when it wasn't a part of my life. In fact, I was introduced to it by an ex-partner-turned-friend, who arrived in our relationship with a little cook book, now sadly I think out of print, called something like Lotsa Pasta and Oodles of Noodles (yes, honestly) which contained a great, if rather garlickly-challenged, ag and og. Then I went to Italy, and there was The Proper Thing, from which is derived our current version. Ag and og is the ultimate convenience food, designed for those times when you really want something with a bit of oomph and pzazz but don't know what it is. When you don't want to feel clogged with cholesterol. When you're too knackered, or just can't be bothered, to fiddle around with lots of preparation or lots of ingredients. It does it for me, always and without fail. Here it is:

For two people:

6 to 8 big, fat, juicy cloves of garlic
a decent glug - half a small cup - of really good extra virgin olive oil
2 servings of pasta of your choice - long and thin works better than short and round, and anything with egg in it is a no-no

Peel the garlic cloves and cut them in half if they're really large, removing any green shoot-y bits from the centre. Put them with the oil into a saucepan and warm gently. Now, how you do this bit is really the key to the whole dish: you don't want to fry them - what you're doing is letting the warmth of the oil draw the flavour from, and at the same time gently soften, the garlic. If you go at it like a bull in a china shop you'll end up with brown, bitter, horrible garlic and it'll end in tears, you mark my words. Reckon on it taking 20 to 25 minutes at the lowest or next-to lowest hob setting. As the cloves soften you can break them up a bit in the pan with a wooden spoon; they should end up slightly golden, lightly caramelised, meltingly soft and highly aromatic (sorry to drool, but it really is that good ...). Cook the pasta, toss it in the oil and garlic, add a tablespoon of dried crushed chilli pepper, season, and serve, sprinkled with a little parsley, and with good bread for serious mopping. And wear an apron.

Oh, and for another taste of garlic, you might like to have a look at Keith Eckstein's impressive 'blog on blogs' that someone has just pointed me to. Keith has set himself the task not just of listing, but also reviewing blogs about living in France. As it happens, he's just reviewed this one. And I like his style: he really makes an effort to get underneath each blog (and blogger) and find out what makes it tick. And even if he does seem to have an obsession with 2CV driving, lingerie wearing nuns, he knows how to use apostrophes.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Woodworking week

We've both set to on wooden projects this week.

I've been stripping, sanding and re-finishing the staircase in La P'tite Maison, which was built and fitted by a local artisan well before our era, some twenty five years ago, but thanks to The Passing Of Time (not to mention builders' boots) was looking more than a little worse for wear. It's beautiful wood: I'm not quite sure what it is, though our neighbours seem to remember that it came from Morocco. And it's been one of those remarkably fast and very satisfying jobs, with (almost) Instant Gratification. What two days ago was scratched and sad and ugly now looks like this ...

while now its me who, after several full-on hours on the end of a sander, looks scratched and sad and ugly ...

Meanwhile, out in the barn, John's been cutting and planing chestnut planks ready to make a balustrade for the mezzanine floor in La P'tite Maison's bedroom. I've spent more than a year on this particular quest (yes, I am persistent, yes I am hard to please, and yes I am a Libran). I've looked at kits - boring. I've thought about wrought iron. Too heavy. I've had quotes for this and that. Two thousand euros? For four metres? Er - maybe not. But as ever the answer was not quite blowing in the wind, but staring us in the face in the barn in the shape of the remainder of our chestnut planks. I had one of those aha! moments, and then we went from idea to design to measurement to action in an hour and a half. 

This is the chestnut in its raw state - not especially promising, maybe?

Here it is after cutting, planing and the first two passes with the sander (yes, that was me again. Sigh):

But the real magic is still to come. Watch this space ...

Oh, and as if all this weren't enough, next week we'll be taking advantage of my part-week off 'work' (!) by sanding, staining, painting and vitrifying over 65 square metres of floor in L'Atelier d'Artiste ... but hey, the temperature's only forecast to be 32 degrees ...

Couple of hours off on Monday though to watch the Tour de France, which is passing just at the end of our road. Yippee - more Skoda hats!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


I've finally managed to identify one of the fritillaries. This one's become addicted to the window sill in the dining-room-to-be, where he (and it is a he - the stripe-y things on the upperside of his wings gives it away) sits out most of the day, in the midst of the plaster dust and lime and general grunge. Every evening he has to be persuaded to leave; every lunchtime he's back (what do butterflies do in the mornings, I wonder?). Here he is (please ignore the dust. It'll be gone by the time you get here, honest):

He's a Silver Washed Fritillary. Pretty, huh?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Butterflies and other animals

In true capricious 2010 fashion, the weather has this week finally caught up with the fact that it's summer and has been teetering on the brink of a full-blown canicule, with shade temperatures hitting the upper thirties and staying there until well after dark. Maybe not the best for heavy outside work, but pretty nice nevertheless (and there's always a worthy substitute, like lounging around on a sun bed with a book. Oh, all right then - like getting on with the inside work ...). The loveliest thing about it though has been the absolute explosion in the butterfly population that we've seen over the last few days.

Ariège is well known for its butterflies, and living here, up at 500 metres in the woods, we seem to get more than our fair share. To be honest, I wish I was better at identifying them - I know of people who are perfectly well able to point at something 50 metres away and name it as a Small Pink-Spotted One-Legged Maui Dancer Thrice Removed, but I'm not (yet) one of them. Having said that, I've got to know the more common (in Ariège terms, that is) ones over the last couple of years. What follows is a quick-and-dirty list of the ones I've seen flying around Grillou over the last 48 hours, partly so that I can show off my new found skills, but mostly so that (shameless plug number 73/10) you can see just how rich nature is here in our little woodland clearing:

Scarce Swallowtail, Swallowtail, Marbled White, Clouded Yellow, Purple Emperor, Common Blue, Purple Hairstreak, Holly Blue, Brown Argus, Red Admiral, White Admiral, various Ringlets, various Fritillaries, various Skippers, Peacock, Black-Veined White, Small White, Large White, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Cleopatra, Wood White, Small Copper, Common Blue, Chalk Hill Blue, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Large Tortoiseshell, various Graylings ... plus various others so far unidentifiable.

This is the Scarce Swallowtail, one of my favourites:

And this: not a butterfly, and not a hummingbird (though it sounds like one) ...

It's a Humming Bird Hawk Moth, with the coolest proboscis on the planet.

And while I'm at it, I can't resist this picture of the only bird I know that speaks its name: the upupa epops (hoopoe). This one has taken up residence just down our track, from where it spends its day yelling 'oop-oop-oop' (or 'poo-poo-poo' as my French bird book would have it) at anyone who'll listen ... and it's hard not to. Just recently it's taken to walking in front of my car as I come home from work, and after we've travelled the requisite 100 metres together it always flies up to the same branch to let me pass ...

Aren't they just ridiculously wonderful?