Friday, 2 December 2011

A December violet

Over the last month we've continued to enjoy extraordinary autumn weather here at Grillou: 160 hours of sunshine - over a third up on the average - and only three days where the sun didn't put in an appearance, along with balmy temperatures often in up the twenties. It's not unusual, at this time of year in particular, for the Pyrénées and their foothills to have much warmer and clearer weather than the rest of south west France, including the Med, and for Ariège to be leading the way temperature-wise. But looking at the weather stats for the last fifty years or so and talking to local people, it seems as though the pattern here is shifting quite noticeably towards warmer/dryer. Which if it continues (and the forecast is for just that: I've been looking at Metéo France's long term predictions for 2050 and 2090 and even the most conservative scenario gives us an increase in the average temperature of 3.5 degrees by 2070) is going to have huge repercussions on all sorts of aspects of life - and wildlife - here.

We're seeing that on a micro-scale here at Grillou. During the last month we've had great tits and blackbirds singing at full pelt; butterflies still swarming round the buddleia; marigolds, geraniums and nasturtiums still in flower; spring primulas bursting into flower too. At the end of October we planted several tiny bare root rose bushes: already, they've all put out huge numbers of shoots and leaves; some our established rose bushes have bloomed again in their fourth flush of the year. The yucca plant has flowered. We're still eating tomatoes and basil from the potager. Some of the birds that normally migrate - our blackcaps, for example - have stayed put. Our several-hundred-year old oak trees are showing signs of stress.

And ... the violets are coming out. Normally we'd expect them at the end of February. But yesterday - the first day of December - we had a small carpet of them. Hmm.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Whoever invented persiennes ......

.... had obviously never painted them.

Persiennes are the things known in English as louvre doors (why???). I like them. But painting them is truly chiant. Oh yes.

I'm one third of the way through painting and patining seven of them, front and back. Each door has 66 slats. Each door needs three coats: one base, one wash coat and one patina coat. That's 2772 slats, if you count both sides. Each one is at a silly angle so that if you're not hyper-vigilant all the paint runs down and pools venomously on the other side, forcing you to leap like an ant-bitten maniac from one side to the other every twenty seconds.

It's - how can I put this? - interesting ...........

Friday, 11 November 2011

Pyrenees Retreats ...

... otherwise known as What Has Been Keeping Me Up Till The Early Hours, or reason number one why I've not been blogging much of late:

It's funny. We've been at Grillou a bit over four years; by the time we (hopefully!) welcome our first guests in April 2012 it'll be nearly five. During that same period, someone I know in a neighbouring department has set up a hospitality business, separated from her partner, sold their house, bought another house and offered chambres d'hotes, met another partner, and has now bought another house in which they'll be open for business next summer ... hey ho. Slow living and all that ....

So, one site down (or up), two to go. I may be some time .....

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A latecomer to the FIP ball ....

A few days ago, as I was driving home from Toulouse and enjoying my usual fiddle with the car radio, I stumbled upon a radio station I'd never come across before: FIP. It stopped me in my tracks because it was playing the kind of music I don't often hear on French radio - or radio anywhere, come to that - a long, drawn out kind of jazz-funk track. After that came some salsa stuff, then afro-beat, then .... one of Dowland's Sorrowful Songs. And then - oh deep unjoy - I lost the signal.

But I was intrigued, and more. There seemed to be something so .... different going on here. Google told me that FIP has been around since 1971 and began as France Inter Paris, started up by two weekend presenters at France Inter. It's always been a radio station with a difference: its music is completely a eclectic mix of genres. So each programme is likely to feature jazz, blues, folk, rock, world, traditional, film music and so on, linked by a more or less obvious theme and moving in a kind of wave. Soon after its beginnings in Paris other 'FIPs' started up in different cities and the P changed according to location: Toulouse's station, for example, was FIT (though it's moved back to FIP now. Are you keeping up here). Some have closed, some - like Toulouse - have been resurrected after periods off air for various reasons, but FIP goes on, still a part of the Radio France group.

And there's a particularly quirky part of its history: for ten years, a resident of Brighton, UK, re-broadcast FIP on two frequencies until Ofcom closed it down in a raid in 2007. It was hugely popular and developed a cult following there: there remains a blog, LoveFIP, and a local appreciation society called Vive La FIP; and it's rumoured that people actually moved house to areas with good FIP reception .....

I have to admit that since that journey home, FIP has rarely been off my airwaves. I've discovered that it's one of the hundreds of radio stations that form a part of my TNT TV package, and that it streams 24 hours a day on the internet, with collections of music available for re-listening too. I'm hooked. It reminds me of late nights listening to my late hero John Peel - you never quite know what's going to come up next, and the presenters have something of the same touch of irony and humour. It's exciting. It's unpredictable. It's a one off. And already I'm grieving the 40 years I've never listened.

So if, like me, you're a fan of eclectic, non-mainstream music and despair of the pap turned out by most radio stations (the two community stations over this side of Ariège, Radio Transparence and La Locale being honourable exceptions, though both are - inevitably - more repetitive than FIP) I'd urge you to take a listen:

You can listen via the website at

or there are downloadable apps here:

or via the Astra satellite at 19.2 degrees east.

I'm listening now, of course. Just one more track (and one more, and then one more ....) and I'll turn off and go to bed. Honestly, I will .............

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ici Londres

When I was in London last weekend I had a couple of hours to spare one afternoon. I decided to find out more about the French community in the city.

I'd got interested a few weeks ago when I read Marc Levy's novel 'Mes amis, mes amours' which is set in South Kensington and follows two thirty-something, single-parent Frenchmen in their search for lurve. The novel portrayed South Ken as being rather stuffed full of French, which was news to me; I do remember lots of coach trips to the Institut Français there to see the latest French film when I was a student, but I've not been back to that area for years (bit posh for me, since you ask; I'm more of a Shepherd's Bush type).

A bit of research told me that there are now around 400,000 French people living in London. Wow. And that London is in fact France's 5th city in terms of its number of registered voters (they're even going to get their own deputé - Member of Parliament - in the next French elections). Let's put that into context: apparently somewhere around 300,000 Britons own houses in France - but a lot of those are second homes, and the number of 'proper' immigrants - those who live here full time - is largely unknown: there's no official means of collecting such information - even the census asked us only to tick a box saying we're of 'other EU origin', which I thought sounded a bit like a food ingredient.

So who are the French in London? Well, it's a very different demographic to the typical Brit in France, that's for sure. Whereas the latter tends (with exceptions, naturellement) to live in a deeply rural area and to be retired, the French in London seem to fall into two main categories. There are those in high-powered jobs, often in the financial sector, particularly banking, here on three or five year secondment (though more and more are, it seems, staying on); and then there are increasing numbers of younger people, often single, who come to improve their English, to get away from the restrictions and red tape that they experience in France where they find themselves in a difficult and closed employment market where (I quote) they need the correct diploma even to sell flowers, and just to experience something new. Favoured areas, particularly amongst the BCBGs, are South Kensington itself along with other suitably leafy, genteel parts of west London such as Chiswick, Ealing, Holland Park and and Barnes, with newer outposts in Kentish Town (where a new French school has just opened), Clapham and - um - Hackney.

As I arrived in South Kensington - known as the 'twenty-first arrondissement' - and wandered into Bute Street - known locally as Frog Alley - it was as if I'd come back home: all the shops, cafés and restaurants were French; I only heard French being spoken around me, so I too lapsed quite naturally into French. I stopped for a drink (ahhhhhh - first decent coffee for three days!) at a café near the French Lycée (4000 pupils) and found myself deep in yummy maman territory. It became very apparent very quickly that there is a real expat/immigrant community here (the kind of community that I do my best to avoid in Ariège - and that is often disapproved of here by many  French people who see it as evidence that the British don't want to integrate! Hmm. Interesting, non ...?). There are magazines like Ici Londres, what seems like hundreds of internet forums to help incomers find their way round and make contacts, and even a local Francophone radio station, French Radio London. There are French doctors, dentists, pharmacists (who'll make sure you get French drugs!), opticians, plumbers, builders, therapists, computer experts; people who'll set you up with French TV and people who'll look after your children and make sure they speak French. And from what I can gather from my earwigging session over coffee there are also masses of groups, classes and clubs set up specifically so that the French community can interact with itself.

It was all very illuminating, and very fascinating. Most fascinating of all though was the abiding sense that I was left with that, just like the fabled Dordogneshire British expat community with its cricket clubs and English pubs, the French community in SW7 actually seems more French than it would be if it had stayed in France ........

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

On the rocks

No, I haven't been taken to hospital having been run over by a mad monk in pyjamas (as my mother used to say with her cheeks sucked in when yet again I'd failed to make the Sunday evening duty phone call). I am still here. It's just that there don't seem to be enough hours in the day to work'n'eat'n'blog. How do other people do it, I wonder?

I notice that a month ago I was writing about our Indian summer. Well, it's still here. Admittedly the sun took a couple of days off last Friday and Saturday, but otherwise it's been shining from a cloudless sky almost constantly; if it weren't for the shortening days I swear you'd not know it was mid-October. Metéo France tells me that last month we had a total of 227 hours of sunshine, considerably up on the average (although the same thing happened last year too ...) and only two days with no sun at all; this month we've already had well over half our average monthly quotient, with not a single day without sun. We're still eating dinner outside, which is something of a record for mid October .... even the birds are singing: today I heard a blackbird, a blackcap and even a great tit. It's all just much too good to miss, so we've thrown much of the inside work to the winds for a while and removed ourselves lock stock and barrel outside, where we're doing our level (or, in the case of our garden, our non-level) best to catch up with some of the general clearing and cleaning work that we failed to do when we were flat out inside (aaaargh .......).

The focus at the moment is the rocky area in front of the house, which is in effect a natural rockery, albeit long since disappeared under tonnes of ivy and moss. It feels as though I've now spent at least half my life clearing the rocks: it's a long, long task, involving a complicated sequence of clippers, scrapers, wire brushes and plastic brushes, together with a mixture of elbow grease and painstakingly minute work in the endless folds and creases of the rocks (good mindfulness practice!). But it's just sooooo good to be working outside on the earth again, which after all is one of the things we came here for. And we've uncovered rocks we didn't know were there - our own mini-Pyrénées.

This is what we inherited when we moved in over 4 years ago:

And this morning ....

We're not finished yet (actually I'm not sure that 'finished' will ever be a word that can be applied to Grillou ....), but we've sure as hell come a long way. And when we finally get some rain, we can start planting.

The weather's set to continue unchanged until next Monday. Alas, I won't be in it. From Friday till Monday I shall be workshop-ing in London. Do I want to go? No. Much as I enjoy the work, I simply have no appetite for being in the UK. Ah so.

Monday, 26 September 2011

L'Atelier d'Artiste - upstairs

Upstairs there's a huge, triple aspect, cathedral ceilinged space for sitting and sleeping, plus a bathroom. This floor has the original ferme (triangular roof truss) plus huge sliding glass windows that have been made to measure to fit the original barn openings, which not only maintains the original 'sense' of the building but gives great views over the surrounding woodland and hillside, and allows a phenomenal amount of light into the space.

The sitting area has a sofa, a mini TV with French plus some English, Spanish, German, Dutch and Italian channels, and a combined hi-fi/DVD player/iPod dock.

The sleeping area has a king size (160cm by 200cm) bed and the usual storage for clothes and incidentals. All the walls have been rendered with fine hemp and lime; woodwork is reclaimed chestnut.

The bathroom was created from the former grenier (grain store) and has a tiled 180cm by 120cm (yes, you did read that right!) walk-in shower, a glass bowl sink on an acacia slab, a wall hung WC and space to sit and relax. The room is finished in a mixture of plaster, hemp and lime render, tadelakt and reclaimed chestnut.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

L'Atelier d'Artiste - downstairs

L'Atelier d'Artiste is an 'appartement d'hôte', and also accommodates one couple. It's a huge space of, in total, 120 square metres (which usually equates to at least a three bedroomed gîte around here!) over two levels, originally converted by Grillou's previous owner from barns and a cowshed into an art restoration studio and workshop. We've renovated the whole area using natural materials, and furnished in a quirky and contemporary French country style with a mixture of new and reclaimed furniture. As in all our accommodation we've used natural paints and washes, home made using natural earth pigments.

Downstairs there's a very practical open plan kitchen with oak units and worktops, a four ring gas hob, full size electric oven, fridge with freezer compartment, washing machine and dishwasher. It's been designed by cooks for cooks and so you'll find plenty of good pans and utensils, sharp knives, gadgets, kettle, espresso machine, cook books plus simple but stylish white crockery and decent glasses. The kitchen is stocked with a supply of basic foodstuffs (herbs, spices, tea, coffee, flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, pasta, tinned tomatoes etc etc), kitchen roll, dishwasher tablets, washing liquid and environment friendly cleaning materials.

There's a dining area which seats four people in comfort; opposite is a sitting area with a squashy sofa and two armchairs plus an antique dresser full of table linen and other essentials

Large double glass doors give directly onto a gravelled terrace outside, where there is a small table and two chairs; a few steps away, under the shade of cherry and walnut trees, is a paved dining terrace with a table, four chairs and parasol.

To be continued ......

Sunday, 18 September 2011

La P'tite Maison

La P'tite Maison is our chambre d'hote suite; created from a former farm worker's house, it now forms a completely self-contained suite for two people of around 65 square metres, over 3 levels and with access from the dining room/library in the main house.

Downstairs is a spacious private hall area leading into a salon with sofa and comfy chairs (pictures coming just as soon as the chairs have been delivered!), a mini-TV system with French plus some English, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch channels as well as some good radio, and a combined hi-fi/DVD player/iPod dock. There's a small dining table with two chairs, a small silent fridge, some cutlery, crockery and glasses so that you have the means to put yourself together a picnic supper, and a kettle plus tray of ground coffee, tea and tisanes.

Upstairs is a landing leading to a double height bedroom with leather double bed; from the bedroom a flight of stairs leads to a mezzanine level chill out area with low chairs and floor cushions, candles, incense and music. The shower room has a tiled 90cm x 90cm thermostatic shower with glass door, a contemporary wash basin and oak shelving, and there's a separate WC.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The fifth season

There's a very distinctive feel to this time of year. It's not summer, nor is it yet autumn; the days are quite noticeably shortening and the mornings are heavy with dew; the light is clear and golden. In traditional Chinese philosophy we're in the middle of the fifth season: late summer. Beginning somewhere around the third week in August and lasting through to the autumn equinox, late summer is a time of richness and of harvest, and belongs to the Earth element, which provides us with all the nourishment and security we need to live through the cycle of the year.

Golden September light in Ariège

Earth is a point of stillness: after a summer of long hot days, late nights, holidays, fêtes and normal day to day routines thrown to the winds, it's a slowing down, a coming home, a preparation for the quiet reflection of autumn and winter. Interestingly, French culture, with its huge focus on la rentrée - for everyone, not just for school students - knows all about that. Life is in transition between the extravert, yang summer period and the yin, inward-looking days of winter where shutters are shut and life revolves around keeping the woodburner going. (I'm talking figuratively, of course: anyone who's read much of this blog will know that at Grillou we spend much of our time outside in tee shirts even in mid winter).

Take a trip to any agricultural co-op or even to the supermarket at this time of year and you'll be presented with a vast array of preserving jars and pans, thermometers, automatic sterilisers and every other possible accoutrement; late summer is also the time to fill the storehouse (tell me about it ... having just managed to finish conserving the eighteen kilos of green beans that my mere three rows of plants produced this year we're now knee deep in aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, quinces, squash, melon, grapes, walnuts, crab apples, figs .....). In this land of duck, any self-respecting paysanne Ariégeoise over 50 will as I speak be filling her larder with jars of confits, soups, stews and beans cooked in duck fat, and foie gras, not to mention - judging by the extraordinary number of tomato plants that grow in the average potager round here - hundreds of pots of tomatoes conserved in every which way.

Jars in my larder: a paysanne in the making?

Late summer is almost always a particularly lovely time to be here in Ariège, where an Indian summer is the rule rather than the exception, often going on until late November. We're having one now - the last two weeks have seen temperatures in the late twenties and early thirties, and it's still perfectly warm enough to have dinner outside, even if - like us - you don't quite get your act together to eat before 9pm. Out and about the light is golden, balmy and has a dream-like quality, especially in the early mornings and at sunset.

Our oleander bush still thinks it's high summer ....

And next year, of course, you'll be able to experience all this for yourselves here at Grillou, because I'm now able to tell you - finally, definitively and without wobbling - that we shall be open for guests from 2 April 2012, and will start to take firm bookings from the end of next month .... Watch this space!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Just another manic Monday

Kalba to Lapeyre: Oi, where's my stuff? Your driver is a plonker. And I've wasted two whole days waiting for him to arrive at the times he has promised. Do something. (Or words to that effect).

Lapeyre to Kalba: Not my problem, madame. I have put you in touch with our driver. That's my job finished.

Kalba to Lapeyre: I'm desolated but I am not in agreement. I have paid you an arm and two legs for this shower screen, plus a small mortgage for the delivery. It was promised for early July. It's now early September. It's your responsibility. Get on with it.

Lapeyre to Kalba: C'est impossible.

Kalba to Lapeyre: No, no, no, I am not at all in agreement. I think it's perfectly possible, and your moral responsibility.


Lapeyre to Kalba: I'll think about it and phone you back.

Kalba to Lapeyre: I'll hold on.

Lapeyre to itself: Sigh. Rustling of paper.

Lapeyre to Kalba: As an honourable exception, madame, I will contact the driver and phone you back.

Kalba to Lapeyre: You have five minutes.


Driver to Kalba: It wasn't my fault. Lapeyre didn't load it onto the van.

Kalba to driver: How strange. It was there at lunchtime when I last spoke to you. You will be here in the morning, non?

Driver to Kalba: Oh, well, I'm not sure ..... maybe Wednesday.

Kalba to driver: C'est impossible. Tomorrow morning, before noon. I'll expect you. That's guaranteed, non?

Driver to Kalba: Oui mais non mais .... [sigh] d'accord.

Kalba to driver: So just to confirm - tell me again when you're coming ....

Driver (in small voice): tomorrow, Tuesday, before noon.

Bets, anyone?

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Kalba and the Furniture Factory

You'll no doubt have noticed that I've been rather more absent than not from this blog of late. Although I'm sorry about that, I make no apologies (if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms), having been up to the top of my head in the - almost - final stages of putting our guest accommodation together. Days are long, with practical work filling the daylight hours, and everything else being relegated to the post-prandial slot, not to mention the website redesign-rewrite which currently can only find a place in the wee small hours .....

Things have moved on a bit from the hod-carrying days of two years ago: pickaxes and plastering floats have been replaced by mounds of tools and materials for wood working and finishing as I've turned myself into a one-woman furniture restoration factory. Although I do actually know people who've taken a van to IKEA a couple of days before their first guests arrive and bought absolutely everything in one fell swoop (yes, honestly: it's seriously scary to see how many recently opened chambres d'hôtes and gîtes look like IKEA showrooms), and although I'm the first to admit that IKEA's stuff does have its place - yes, even at Grillou - I could never be one of them. I need a bit of age and character and idiosyncrasy alongside my squashy Ektorp sofas. So over the last year or so I've spent weeks sourcing various bits of 'pre-loved' (read: unloved) furniture from antique dealers, brocantes, depôts vente, Emmaus and private sellers all over Ariège and Haute-Garonne.

It's all a bit déja vu; this time 14 years ago I was manically restoring 28 Thonet bentwood chairs ready for our restaurant opening that autumn. I still remember my panic one August day when the heavens suddenly opened, I was on my own, and I had a courtyard full of chairs in bits and wet with walnut-husk stain. Sadly we sold those chairs on (for a healthy profit!), along with lots of other English 'country' furniture, before we left the country, though I've managed to pick up one or two here including a very rare Thonet Number 4 dating back to the 1880s.

Although there's a huge amount of old and antique furniture to be had here it's not been entirely straightforward choosing the right pieces for Grillou. Much of it is huge and grand, designed for maisons du maître or petits châteaux (although many a French person will happily use it to furnish their tiny modern pavillons and villas :-O); Grillou, although large and rambling, is a bit of an oddity in that it's actually a collection of smaller, once separate buildings - if France had such things you'd almost call it a cottage - and was rustique rather than wealthy (um - it still is ...) so immaculate, beautifully polished antiques would just look plain daft.

Anyway, here's a bit of a look at some of the products of Kalba's Furniture Factory as it approaches closure. All of the pieces here were in an execrable state when I found them; stupidly I didn't take 'before' pictures so you'll just have to use your imagination. Oh, and you get a bit of a sneak preview of some of our rooms too .....

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Tettigonia viridissima

Late this afternoon Grillou had a rather unusual visitor. Here she is:

Meet Tettigonia viridissima. She's a Great Green Bush Cricket: une grande sauterelle verte.

How do I know she's a female? Simple. That thing at her rear end is her ovipostor. She's laying eggs. In - um - the coir doormat in our hall :-D . She seemed remarkably unfazed by the presence of a large pinkish-brown animal crawling round her with a camera just a few centimetres away. Tetti (hope she doesn't mind me being familiar) stayed for nearly an hour, during which time she left us with (I'm told) over 300 eggs ...

Life's never dull, here.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


It's a tough time here in Ariège just now. Particularly for an indecisive Libran music lover like me.

Thursday: the first night of the new Ercé in Jazz festival, or Vivaldi meets Guinness meets Brazil with the violin group Cordzam in Salies du Salat?

Friday: Blues in Sem, the second night of Ercé in Jazz, or Lëk Sèn at the first night of Ingénieuse Afrique in Foix?

Saturday: Eastern European music from Zaman Zaman at the café culturel Le Souleilla in our neighbouring village, the third night of Ercé in Jazz, or two gigs (Ahmed Cissé and Les Choeurs de Brazza) at Ingénieuse Afrique?

Sunday: lots of folklore-y stuff in St Girons at Autrefois les Couserans, the son et lumière Le Secret des Cathares in Foix, or Harouna Dembele at Ingénieuse Afrique?

Monday: the night market at Castillon - always good fun - or a several-times-postponed trip to Toulouse to collect an oven?

Tuesday: the Choeur de Crimée performing Rachmaninov's Vespers and other goodies in the church at Le Mas d'Azil .... or an early night? Okay, I admit it; after five consecutive (very) late nights and many hours spent dancing, we chose the early night .... but the week went on, and we'll be catching up with the Choeur de Crimée next week at the Festival de Saint Lizier ......

There's always a big sense of build up in the fortnight approaching 15 August, which is a public holiday here (Assumption), and none the more so than in years like this when it falls on a Monday and thus creates a long holiday weekend. "France at a snail's pace!" cried our regional paper; according to one commentator it's the time when many holiday homes get opened up, and camping cars get dusted off, for the one and only occasion in the year. After Assumption thoughts, and holidaymakers, begin to turn homewards, the village fête reigns supreme, and the prospect of la rentrée begins to loom large. In a couple of weeks we'll have the roads to ourselves again.

One dilemma we don't have is whether to pass the next four nights with our fellow villagers under the plane trees at Rimont's annual fête locale. Why? Well, if you've ever heard any of the bands that trawl village fêtes here you don't need to ask. If you haven't, think Birdie Song meets 1980s French pop meets Songs From The Shows meets Jonny Hallyday take-offs, all played at ear shattering volume through appalling sound systems (from Grillou we can hear not only our own fête, but that of our two neighbouring villages, though thankfully not all at the same time). Maybe you just have to be there to appreciate it, but I think I'll just leave that one to the imagination ...

PS Monday's band is called Ad'vil, which also happens to be a brand of ibuprofen. I rest my case.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Après le déluge ...

... les papillons.

Two days after my last post, the sun came out. Incontrovertible proof that anti-cyclones not only can read, but read this blog. (Delusions? Moi?).

And with the sun came literally hundreds of butterflies, all making a - um - bee-line for the big buddleia bush next to our top terrace. I've never before seen so many in the same place at the same time. We have several buddleia bushes, some wild, some planted, and all attract scores of butterflies when the flowers are out; what we're seeing at the moment though is a first. (I wish I could take a decent photo but all you get to see are flying blobs ...). Scarce swallowtails, commas, painted ladies, peacocks, red admirals, white admirals, southern white admirals, tortoiseshells, small coppers, swallowtails, several different fritillaries, marbled whites, purple emperors, ringlets, various blues, large whites, small whites, plus a few unidentified little brown jobs are all jostling for position through most of the day. Wonderful.

And reason number 687 for planning a trip to Grillou next summer ..... :-)

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Ark wanted. Must be waterproof and in good condition

This is seriously not funny. It has now been raining most of the time for three weeks, and all of the time for three days. And it's cold. People are lighting wood burners and putting on heating.

Hello? This is, if I'm not mistaken, July. We call that summer, in the trade. Holiday time. Is someone having a laugh?

According to Metéo France it's all because the Azores anti-cyclone has settled in 'the wrong place'. Well, if you happen to be reading this, Azores anti-cyclone, would you like to get off your backside and move? Like, now? Please?

Must go. Off to weed the paddy fields.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Three-times cooked chips

So, by popular request, the nuts and bolts of frites maison Grillou:

1. Cut some floury potatoes into chips - I reckon mine were somewhere between half to three quarters of a centimetre thick.

2 .Put the chips into cold water with a teaspoon of salt, and bring to the boil. Simmer for one minute until they're just tender to the point of a knife. Drain, spread them out on a tea towel to dry, then chill in the fridge.

3. Heat the oil - mine's two thirds colza (rapeseed) plus one third sunflower - to 130 degrees and cook the chips for 6 minutes. They should be slightly dry on the surface but not browned at all. The idea of this stage is to cook them inside so that they end up fluffy. Drain, and if you have time cool/chill them again  (I cooled them but didn't have time to chill them).

4. Heat the oil again to 180 degrees and cook the chips for two to three minutes, until they're golden but not brown. Drain on kitchen paper and salt while really hot.


Sunday, 24 July 2011

A frite on my shoulder

Yesterday I did something that I would never, in a million years, have imagined myself doing. (Yes, I will tell you what it was. But you'll have to read on ....).

Rewind - ahem - several years. Let me just say that whereas my mother may have had many good qualities, cooking was not among them. We subsisted largely on a diet of tough grey meat, soggy potatoes, greens that managed to be grey, tough and soggy at the same time, and convenience foods. It was so bad that I thought school dinners were gourmet extravaganzas; my dad, meanwhile, got his fix of food with taste by lunching every day at various Italian, Bangladeshi and Caribbean greasy spoons in London's East End. What we never had at home was anything deep-fried. Deep-fried food was deemed to be - how can I put it? - a bit common (probably a small mercy given that mum would almost certainly have set fire to the kitchen). Visiting the fish and chip shop was acceptable - once - whilst on holiday; otherwise, never.

I first encountered proper frites while working as a student in a hotel in the Swiss Alps. Every morning M. le Patron would cut - by hand - a veritable Alp of chips; he'd blanch them in boiling water, then dry and chill them before frying them at a low temperature for five minutes or so. After that they'd be drained and refrigerated, to await the lunch service when they'd be cooked again, to order, at a high temperature. They were fantastic - soft and fluffy on the inside, crisp and golden on the outside. No wonder diners came from far and wide to eat them.

A few years later my then partner had a habit of cooking up pans of late-night chips in the house we shared with our somewhat outrageous friends Bob and Mike. The house would miraculously fill up with Acton's weird and wonderful, who would stay until the early hours while John (that one, not this one) would produce bowl after bowl of frites to accompany the endless bottles of bad wine we drank while sewing women's knickers (don't ask). I was much too terrified to go anywhere near the kitchen, the idea of a saucepan full of boiling oil  - we had no mod cons like chip baskets - on a gas hob being just t o o o o far outside my comfort zone. And then with the end of that relationship came the end of my eating frites maison for 20 odd years ...

... until last night. Because what I did yesterday was ... buy a deep fryer.

It's posh. It's from Lidl. That is not a contradiction in terms. So before you - as I would have done until recently - pour scorn on my choice of shop, let me tell you that in the last couple of years I've bought from Lidl (amongst other things): an orbital sander and a detail sander, both of which clearly come out of the Bosch factory; an espresso machine that is indistinguishable from the Moulinex model; an SDS drill of indeterminate provenance but as functional and robust as anything you could find; plus various kettles, toasters, kitchen scales, bagless vacuum cleaners, hand blenders, parasols, garden chairs and other stuff, all at around a third of the price of proper 'branded' goods and all with a three year warranty. Still laughing?

I bought it with fantasies of making panisse and briks and courgette flower fritters and tempura and churros and felafel and pakora and bhajis and accras de morue and puris and whitebait et al. And I shall. But last night there was only one thing to cook.

Frites, M. le Patron style. And oh my god, they were good.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Just another French national holiday ...

Thursday (the day on which the Bastille was stormed 222 years ago, now the Fête Nationale).

A vide-greniers in La Bastide de Sérou ....

followed by a 10km walk along the voie verte to Cadarcet and back ...

followed by a fiesta. Pamiers Fiesta, to be precise. Along with more than 50,000 others we tapas'd and salsa'd and kizomba'd and carnavale'd and oohed and aahed at fireworks until 3 in the morning ...


More fiesta ... this is the Compagnie Fuente Flamenca who produced some awesomely earthy and passionate flamenco: according to their 'blurb' they aim to "present a flamenco which is as close as possible to its source, without pretension or needless chatter; the artists sing, play and dance because they remember, with the element of mysterious, magical power - el duende - that arouses the memory of things not lived by themselves, but by those who created this art". One definition of duende: "duende is an inner spirit, which is released as a result of a performer's intense emotional involvement with the music, song and dance. If you experience a shiver of recognition, even for an instant, it means the duende has successfully transferred a lifetime's worth of joy and pain from the performer to you". 

I shivered.

And a feast. We ate ....

Accras de morue
Salade exotique
Velouté de tomate-citron vert epicé
Daurade grillé au gingembre frais
Poulet yassa
Mafé de bœuf
Porc à la cannelle et à la coriandre
Coupe glacée noix de coco, chocolat, mangue et passion.

Er, yes (ahem). I do mean all of it.


Catching up with friends at a birthday lunch, in the sun in the garden, and the Tour de France whizzing through their village. On the way home:

Celtic music at the Celtied'Oc festival.


Rain stopped play.