Wednesday, 1 February 2017

239. Politics à la française

22nd February. This short film (not always easy to watch) touches on the importance of wine in French life, showing how it's a central thread that runs through their lives, how the great occasions of life are celebrated hand-in-hand with wine, and how life's pleasures and sadnesses can be conjured up by the memories of certain wines. If the video refuses to run, click on this link and scroll down to launch the "Fil Rouge".

If you're an aficionado of chocolate in all its forms, then this link that a friend kindly sent me will surely have you drooling at the chops..! I've never quite been able to understand how a town like Bayonne, with only 40,000 inhabitants, manages to sustain so many 'high end' chocolate shops*. Much of the activity happens here in the rue Port Neuf (below) - so there's no need to waddle a great distance! (couldn't resist that one!)

* Just found out there are 12 of them..

21st February. This week's special offer! I know I've mentioned the great Dorado Schmitt here many times before - but if you'd like to listen to more of his work, then open this link and click on Videos.. There are also a few other samples of his under the MP3 and YouTube captions. 

Banjos.. I love this story!
I feel cold just watching this video of Bill Buchholz's beautifully built ice-boat out on a frozen Chickawaukie Lake, Rockport, Maine up in the north eastern USA. Wouldn't this make you feel glad to be alive..? Skimming over the ice at a fair old lick on a sunny day in winter in frozen Maine? I would willingly sacrifice an organ to try it! The boat is right up meine strasse.. with not a hint of carbon fibre in sight - just the honeyed glow of varnished wood:

That final comment made me laugh! More here.

20th February. I've just stumbled upon the photographs of Véronique Derouet.. this was the one that caught my eye.. along with this one (below). No prizes for guessing where it is! (best seen full size)

18th February. I've just discovered that an old fave of mine - Kitty O'Shea's Irish pub in Paris - has closed and has been re-invented as the Frog Hop House. Kitty O'Shea's couldn't have been more authentic - the friendly bar staff were as Irish as they come and the Guinness was well-kept. In other words, a great place to be trapped in.

17th February. At choir practice last night we tackled a new piece by Schubert (Tantum Ergo in C D739). All I'm saying is that we've a long way to go!
15th February. I went for a walk along the beach at Anglet (formerly known as dog-walking territory) this afternoon as it was a warm day.

We had 19° here yesterday. We'd planned to go out for a seafoody lunch at Chez Pantxua (just across the bay in St Jean de Luz) but, in turning the car around in the street the day before, someone* had contrived to pinch a tyre sidewall against the kerb and, in doing so, tore an irreparable split in it. I always carry a footpump in the car but this time it was of no use. Of course, VW discontinued the practice of supplying spare wheels for this model some years ago - so the car was completely undriveable - and, to cap it all, it appeared that no-one in town stocked this particular tyre size! I'll spare you the rest of the story - suffice to say that I picked the car up from the tyre supplier in town late yesterday afternoon after some 260-odd euros (breakdown recovery + new tyre) had changed hands. So Chez Pantxua will have to wait for another day. It's strange how your day can be spoilt by such a trivial incident.

* Yes, that someone was me.
13th February. And now for something completely different.. I heard of this recording earlier today - it's Keith Jarrett and his "The Köln Concert" - a concert recording of solo piano improvisations performed at the Opera House in Cologne on January 24, 1975. (this blog is nothing if not up to date!) The background to this recording is worth reading. I'm not sure I could listen to this for long.. but I could be, and probably am, wrong.
Going further back in time, I find "Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk more to my taste..
12th February. Post match: Well, I don't think I'll be giving up my day job after my prediction that Scotland would win in Paris! Highlights here. (en français)

Just as my heart-rate has returned to normal after the thrilling match in Cardiff yesterday, the prospect of the 6 Nations encounter between France and Scotland this afternoon threatens to send it surging back into the red zone again! My money's on a win for Scotland.

After a pulsating match in Cardiff yesterday, England emerged winners after fashioning a sweeping try by Elliot Daly in the closing minutes. Post-Gatland, Wales have changed their style and were on top for most of this enthralling match - but Eddie Jones seems to have instilled a winning mentality into the English players. To watch the entire match in HD, look here. If it's just the highlights you want, look no further. (Extraits officiels en français):

Italy played host to Ireland in Rome on Saturday.. and the match turned into a 63-10 pointsfest for the men in green. Highlights here. (en français)

11th February. Farewell Joost van der Westhuizen.. a giant of Springbok and world rugby, regardless of era, who passed away on 6th February. He re-invented scrum-half play in his own fashion - athletic, never say die, a fierce competitor in both attack and defence, totally committed and a feared and respected opponent. A great loss at such an early age.

Joost van der Westhuizen, 1971-2017
9th February. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Scotland emerge victorious from their encounter with France in Paris on Sunday afternoon. They've been playing some fiery rugby and they look as though they're all singing from the same hymn sheet. They have some classy players and I think they'll do well against a French side that is slowly rebuilding.

6th February. For an update on that François Fillon story, here's a report on the press conference he had earlier this afternoon. Read on here.

The streets of Bayonne are looking a bit bedraggled this morning after the violent weekend storms - the pavements were covered in twigs, branches, leaves and other detritus. Storms down here are pretty intense.

This was the sea at Biarritz yesterday as seen from the lighthouse:

5th February. What's going on? A few minutes ago in the early afternoon, another wall of water came rolling in from the sea.. along with thunder and lightning, hail and rain (as though from a fire hose!), not to mention the shrieking wind. I don't envy anyone on a boat/ship in the Bay of Biscay at the moment!

For once, I was woken up in the wee small hours last night by the sound of a major storm blowing through here. We had the lot - torrential rain, winds howling around the house, shutters rattling, the sound of storm water in the gutters. Then I went back to sleep!

Italy - Wales this afternoon!

4th February. Post match: Eddie Jones' England scraped home after a scruffy match with a narrow 19-16 win over a much-improved France under the likeable Guy Novès. Novès had selected a powerful and athletic set of players (Piano Shifters and Piano Players). In contrast, Eddie Jones was unable to field the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Watson - all being unavailable due to injuries. The English forwards lacked conviction and as a result, England weren't winning enough ball at set pieces - plus, they looked rusty, short of oomph and they played like a team of strangers. In the closing few minutes Eddie Jones sent on Danny Care, Ben Te'o, Jack Nowell and James Haskell and the changes galvanised England - it was as though they'd switched to mains electricity after running on dud batteries for 70 of the 80 minutes - and Ben Te'o went over to seal the match with only a few minutes remaining. I think France will be feeling justifiably aggrieved at letting a Twickenham win slip through their fingers after having dominated the match for long periods. For England, it was their 15th consecutive win (a national record) under Eddie Jones - but it wasn't a pretty sight. This was winning ugly. France will win more matches than they'll lose if they continue to play like this.

I wonder how much of referee's Angus Gardner admonishments - delivered in Australian English - were understood by the French pack, particularly the front row. I could see some puzzled expressions among them yesterday. In the interests of fairness, perhaps it's time the IRFU provided referees who are bilingual. I think the respected Irish referee Alain Rolland was one of the very few (if not the only) international referees who were genuinely bilingual. If that's too difficult, how about introducing some codewords (along the lines of the ICAO phonetic alphabet) for specific instructions or penalties? With so many matches being decided by penalties, it's time to level the playing field.  

Well done Scotland! They upset the form book with a thrilling win over an Irish XV who looked curiously out of sorts. Resurgent Scotland played some beautiful flowing rugby with Stuart Hogg scoring a couple of cracking tries. This is how rugby should be played. Ireland came back in the second half but Scotland took the game with a 27-22 win. Hogg's place in the British and Irish Lions squad could be inked in now. He must be the Lions first choice full back.
Edited to add: good to see that the SRU has finally seen fit to play the "Black Bear" prior to the anthems..! Now all they need to do is ditch that maudling dirge "Flower of Scotland".

Today sees the most eagerly-awaited event of the year.. No, it's not the re-appearance of the boudin blanc at Montauzer's in Bayonne but it's the opening weekend of the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament. If you're new to this, the 6 Nations involved are - in alphabetical order - England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

The opening match should be a cracker - it sees Scotland taking on Ireland at Murrayfield. Ireland are widely tipped to win the tournament this year but I don't see them having an easy ride against a much-improved Scottish XV. Ireland are without their talismanic Johnny Sexton so anything could happen. Players to keep an eye on? Stuart Hogg for Scotland and Simon Zebo for Ireland. I think Ireland should just shade this one.

South of the border, last year's Grand Slam winners England host France in what promises to be a mouth-watering encounter. The anticipation can sometimes be greater than the performance as 2 great teams can nullify each other. However, two years ago the match unfolded in spectacular fashion:
Elsewhere, Wales travel to Italy for their opening match tomorrow. Italy will be pumped up this game so I think the scoreline will be pretty close. I'm going for a Welsh win but not by more than 10pts.

Here's an unusual stat for you: the 6 Nations tournament is set to be watched by the highest average attendance per match of any tournament in world sport. This is truly an astonishing statistic. To me, I rate it higher than the Olympics..

3rd February. We realised with a start a couple of days ago that it was 9 years to the day that we moved into the house. I was just thinking of how much work we'd had done in the house in that time.. In no particular order: double glazing, new more efficient electric radiators, roof re-tiled, new front door, new paths (back and front), 3 major trees taken down, hall and kitchen re-tiled, new kitchen and bathroom, exterior of the house repainted, garage doors replaced, garage rewired, new door to cellar, old fireplace replaced by wood-burning stove, a forced ventilation system (VMI) fitted - plus many more smaller jobs. Then there are those ongoing battles - like the lawn! (Won't bore you with the details) I know it's an old cliché that time seems to accelerate as we get older but the last nine years really have flown by. It certainly doesn't seem like nine years that we moved in the house with its pristine paintwork everywhere.      

Penelope and François Fillon
1st February. I wrote a few months ago that I thought François Fillon would be the next president of France. Well, recent events may have proved me wrong. It was alleged in the Canard Enchainé - a whistle-blowing satirical French newspaper - that Fillon's (Welsh) wife Penelope had been paid 900,000€ for what was claimed to be fictitious work and that furthermore, two of his five children (who were students at the time) had been employed as parliamentary assistants, earning another 84,000€. I would have thought, perhaps naïvely, that as the Fillons had both trained as lawyers that somewhere in the mix that we could have reasonably expected to find a spot of integrity. I should add that, so far, these are allegations and that maybe he has a satisfactory answer for this story. I must admit that at first I thought this was simply a well-timed smear story, released by someone with the intent of derailing the Fillon presidential campaign but I have to say that the omens aren't good for him. It would be interesting to know who put the Canard Enchainé onto this story. 

I think this might well see the end of his presidential ambitions. If so, it leaves the field wide open as the other candidates are, with one exception, something of a dog's breakfast. Representing the Parti socialiste is Benoît Hamon, and he's cut from the same cloth as the UK's Jeremy Corbyn - therefore unelectable in 2017.

The far right Front National will be represented by Marine Le Pen. It's difficult to judge the appeal that Mme Le Pen has for the voters - especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Even if she makes it through the first, I'm not convinced that she could win the second round.

At the moment, it's unclear who will be the candidate for Les Républicains - whether it might still yet be Fillon, or perhaps the septuagenarian Juppé will step forward and re-enter the fray. For those on the Right, Fillon now has a question mark over him - is he damaged irreparably? If Juppé stands, he'll be seen as a safe pair of hands perhaps by some, certainly - and by others as far too old and lacking in dynamism, especially at a time when France requires leadership. 

The one exception I referred to earlier is Emmanuel Macron. He is young (40 I believe) and he's relatively untainted by association with Président Hollande. He could well attract votes from those disaffected PS voters who feel let down by Hollande and who refuse to vote for the far Left Hamon. I think Macron must be well placed to make it through to the second round - and perhaps beyond. Here's he is in conversation with the BBC's Andrew Marr:
Macron is something of a wild card in the May election - and he's unencumbered either by a party or a manifesto. He's an énarque, a technocrat in the classic French mould and he's positioned himself in the centre of the political spectrum. Can he connect with the ordinary voter - enough for them to vote for him - that's one of the key questions.

Disturbingly for EU sceptics, he believes in more, not less, Europe. I read the other day that he is proposing that the EU adopts a common debt policy. This means that all members of the eurozone would be responsible for the debts incurred by member states. Have a think about the implications of that for a moment. Would I be happy about that if I were a German? I don't think so.

Another question to mull over stems from a legal phrase I once heard: "cui bono" - or, as we might say today - "To whose benefit?", or less politely: "follow the money". In other words, to find out who set this Fillon story running, we should look at who stands to gain the most from the revelation. I'll leave you to ponder that question. As Madame says - it's a panier de crabes! If you want to read more on the French political horror-show, look here and here:

With the French presidential elections this year as well as the German elections, I hope the outcome brings an end to the drift towards extreme politics. An extreme party requires another extreme party to oppose it - and we all remember what happened the last time this situation occurred.   

Meanwhile, in the UK, there is much hand-wringing among the usual suspects over the proposed State visit by President Trump to the UK. The figure below on the left is Jeremy Corbyn, who spent 30-odd years polishing the seat of his trousers on the back benches in Parliament before his surprise accession to the leadership of the Labour Party. He's a permanent member of the "awkward squad" (always outside the tent pi**ing in) and he's seen by many as unelectable. Thankfully.

The furore by the chatterati over the President Trump State visit is all meaningless froth in my opinion. Since when have we rejected, or even considered rejecting, a visit to the UK by the elected leader of the free world - and our chief ally? Sounds to me as though there are too many people with access to social media working themselves up to a self-righteous frenzy. Taking the dog for a walk would be a better option.   

Saturday, 7 January 2017

238. Greasy Joan weather

31st January. I hope I'm not tempting fate but today could be the end of the longest cold spell we've had since moving here almost 10 years ago. Today, the mid-afternoon temp was up to 20°.. We went to Biarritz and there was someone swimming.. and without a wet suit as well. Hats off to him!

Over the weekend, we went to the cinema twice to see two much-touted films. The first was "La La Land" and apparently it's received the most Oscar nominations of any film - ever. I'm afraid your correspondent thought it was the greatest, copper-bottomed, over-inflated and hyped turkey of all time. Yes, Ryan Gosling (he of the single facial expression) danced well and appeared to play the piano - and Emma Stone - I'm trying and failing to be positive - was in it as well. (that's the best I can do) But - I thought the two had zero chemistry (neither of them convinced) and it was hard to see what inspired the mutual attraction that we were expected to believe in. And that, for a film where the central theme was their relationship, is pretty damning. Royaume Uni - Nul Points.

The other film was "Manchester by the Sea". What to say about this shocker..? I'd say that if you're a borderline depressive and you're actively looking for something that will trigger that final surge of despair needed to push you over the edge - then go right ahead and go and see it - this could be just what you need. However, if, like me, you happen to be a reasonably balanced individual, then I'd say steer well clear of it. I'm afraid that I fail to see the point of films like these that wallow in the tragedies that occur in other people's lives.            

28th January. I went into town this morning with Madame to give her a hand with the shopping. Stopping off at Montauzer en route, we picked up some of his fabled truffled boudin blanc sausages.. (mentioned before here). These normally only appear around Christmas-time, so we took advantage of this unexpected bounty.. When served with sautéed apple, they can be safely guaranteed to stop all conversation for as long as it takes to dispose of them.. (They don't show up on his website for some reason) Here's a reminder of this mouth-watering dish that will have you drooling over your keyboard.. (Health Warning: I realise that we're in danger of stepping into the realm of food-porn with this photo)  

27th January. We decided to have lunch out today so we took the free navette (below) into Bayonne and made our way to the slightly-off-the-beaten-track Café du Musée. This is a cosy old bistrot ably run by husband-and-wife team Philippe and Sylvie Lopez (right). Philippe's cooking is always fresh and innovative - the menu changes daily - and there's usually a choice of 3 entrées, 3 main courses and 3 desserts. Sylvie runs the front of house and she takes a genuine friendly interest in all the patrons. If you're visiting Bayonne, this is a 'must'! If for any reason you're not able to reserve a table, and want to trust to luck, then I'd advise arriving early - every table was taken today.

Edited to add: We took the navette to come home and when we got on it, there was only one seat free - and Madame took that one. To my eternal embarrassment/shame, a girl of about 18-20 stood up and offered me her seat - and insisted that I take it. (Tell the truth time: It also happened when we were in the Underground in London in mid-December.) I must have that confused pensioner expression off to a tee!

By the way, the navette runs every 8 minutes on this circular route around Bayonne. It's the ideal way to see Bayonne as a visitor - and, what's more, it's free. (Courtesy note: it's usual for people entering or leaving the bus to say, "Bonjour" or "Merci, au revoir" to the driver.)       

I managed to find a higher-res recording of an ensemble led by the great Dorado Schmitt playing that jazz manouche classic - "Dark Eyes" - at the 2005 Django Reinhardt Festival in New York.. I know I've featured it here before - but it's well worth it in my view!   

26th January. Final visit to the rhumatologue this afternoon to inject the last lot of gloop into my noisy knees. It's hard to tell if this treatment is doing me any good or not - but from what the doctor tells me, I'll have to have this done on an annual basis from now on. 

Still very cold here - I'm sure the temps were sub-zero just now when I toddled off into town for the bread. There was a keen wind as well which felt as though my face was freezing into a rictus! All character building stuff! On the bright side, the skies are wall-to-wall blue with not a cloud in sight. 

This is the scene at Gourette, a winter sports station about 2 hrs to the south east of us.
Then there's La Pierre Saint-Martin, which is probably the nearest ski resort for people here. Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to go up there, I think it would cause terminal damage to my knees. 

22nd January. I had my annual health check with my GP yesterday. My blood pressure was right in the 120/70 groove and my heart rate was steady at 54bpm. After running through the results of my blood analysis, it appeared that I had some headroom in the area of cholesterol, so - seeing that we are still in the grip of very cold weather, we decided that a little winter treat was called for at lunchtime today.

Yes, it was raclette time! This is nothing more than a table top grill that - hang on, a picture being worth a thousand words, take a look here (left). Set it up on your dining table, turn it on and while it's heating up, assemble the following ingredients for a classic raclette: for two, you'll need 10-12 slices of raclette cheese, about half a dozen slices of mountain ham, a green salad and a few steamed potatoes and finally a crusty baguette. Slide two slices of raclette cheese under the hot grill and while you're waiting for the cheese to bubble up, ease the cork out of a bottle of burgundy and do the necessary. When the cheese is ready, slide the melted cheese over your ham or your potato (avoiding your lap unless you like living dangerously!). While you're eating the first one, put a fresh slice of cheese under the grill. Continue this until all food items have disappeared. This is real comfort food. Probably not a good idea to eat anything in the evening after this! Take a look here at other variations.

20th January. Frosty start to the day here - according to the car* it was -1°C.. Still, it's sunny with blue skies so mustn't grumble.

* A VW - so take it with a pinch of salt!☺

18th January. Still cold (0°C) here this morning. I was in town doing some shopping (a man's work is never started – oops, finished) and my hands were completely numb when I returned. 

17th January. Memory's a strange thing isn't it.. How is it that I can't remember what I came upstairs for and yet - listening to the opening credits of the BBC's "Maigret" series from the early 1960s is as fresh, timeless and evocative as it ever was.. It starts at 01:38..
14th January. There was a piece on the news this evening about a planetarium that's been opened on the summit of the Pic du Midi.. a peak in the central Pyrenees that's shy of 10,000ft by just a few hundred feet. Just added it to my 'must-do' list!
Mind you, I feel ill after looking at this video of the ascent by cable car.. (starts at 0:20) having been scarred for life by "Where Eagles Dare"..!

We drove down to Socoa yesterday intending to call in at our favourite seafood restaurant - Chez Pantxua - for lunch, but sadly they were closed until February. We had one look at the 23€ lunch menu proposed by their neighbour - Arraina - and seconds later, we were sitting in their cosy enclosed heated terrace from where we could watch the wintry scene outside in comfort.

The weather was disturbed - the house had been buffeted by wind and rain during the night straight in from the bay of Biscay - and while half the sky was blue, the other half appeared to feature every cloud known to man. The sea was boiling up and crashing over the nearby sea wall in towering explosions of white foam. The gusty wind was blowing seemingly from all quarters and occasionally contained large drops of rain or hail. Waves were making it through past the sea wall into the bay.

The menus arrived and our interest in the weather outside evaporated! An hour or so later we emerged blinking into the sunlight after a delicious lunch, happy to have found another restaurant to add to our list of favourites. Well worth a repeat visit.

11th January. Just back from a visit to the "rhumatologue".. For some time now, whenever I've stood up, my knees have sounded like practice night at castanet class - and so today the doc injected some silicon-based gloop into them. I've another two sessions of this in the next few weeks. On the bright side, I've been put on 'light duties' (heh heh!)..

Hundreds of thousands of ducks are being slaughtered here in south west France in a preventative campaign designed to arrest the spread of a virulent strain (H5N8) of bird flu (la grippe aviaire). It's believed that the virus is spread by migratory birds. It was reported on the lunchtime news that it is active in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (that's us). Now, as to the question whether or not it's safe to eat the affected species of poultry, the World Health Organisation (scroll halfway down this link) has issued a statement: "The WHO and other expert bodies, therefore, do not currently consider avian influenza a food safety risk for consumers." Me? I think I'll try and avoid duck in all its forms for the next few months. This will not be easy, living in south-west France. If you experience any of the following symptoms: muscle pain, cough, fever and/or sore throat and you think you might have been at risk, it might be worth a visit to your généraliste (GP). More here.

7th January. The start of the 2017 RBS 6 Nations Rugby Tournament is drawing ever closer. Scotland and Ireland start this year's proceedings - closely followed by England v France on Saturday, 4th February at Twickenham. Unfortunately, Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born "one-man wrecking ball", is set to miss the entire campaign through injury. Great pity.. See what he's capable of here:
6th January. It's been an unseasonably cold start to the year here.. (I know.. nowhere near as cold as Wisconsin!) For some odd reason, these lines by Shakespeare, last heard in a dusty classroom many decades ago, are stuck in a recess somewhere in my head and single digit temperatures are usually all it takes to bring them out:
WHEN icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
(the rest here)
I'm not looking for sympathy but we seldom see temperatures down near 0°C here on the coast so the chill winds of the last few days have come as a bit of a shock to the system.. If I get knocked down, the Accident & Emergency Unit at the local hospital will think I'm sponsored by Damart! By the way, if you're scratching your head over the reference to 'Greasy Joan', take a look at the Shakespeare link!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

237. In the almost bleak midwinter..

31st December. Well, here we are again, waving goodbye to another year that's passed by all too quickly. It's been a mixed year for us here at Pipérade Towers so let's hope that 2017 brings all of us better health and happiness.

Best wishes to all of you out there in Blogistan! (looks like the Eiffel Tower below)

30th December. It's hard to imagine that the activity shown in this next video would be allowed to take place anywhere else in the world (and certainly not in the UK!) other than in France. Yes, it's the curious existence of the bouilleur ambulant (mobile distiller). These wandering artisan distillers tow their homemade alambics (stills) - quaint relics from an earlier age - around the countryside in la France profonde converting fermented fruit into eau-de-vie (alcohol) for the farming community. There are fewer and fewer of these primitive-looking but effective contraptions left in France. According to the commentary (ahem), this practice is "strictly regulated".

Now and again, I've come into contact with this homemade 'rocket fuel'. Towards the end of a meal, someone will produce an unlabelled bottle from under the table with a knowing wink and offer to add some to your coffee. I was once given a plain unmarked bottle of this colourless product and I was surprised at how drinkable it was. I've no idea what strength it is but from a cautious sip, I would say at least 50% BV. (I call it C-Stoff!) I'd expected it to taste like after-shave or something similar but I must say that it was smooth and it went well with a coffee. I think that may have been the night I tried to take my trousers off over my head!☺

26th December. Here's a little Christmas treat for me (and perhaps for you).. We were fortunate to have experienced Paris in the 60s in our early days and we still look back on those times with great fondness - they remain very special. Here's a reminder as the incomparable Charles Aznavour spells out this paean to his youth in Paris in La Bohème:
Down to the beach at Anglet this morning for a brisk walk and a quick blast of sea air.. 8°C in still air with some mist over the sea.

24th December. I'd like to wish all those of you still here a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year..

23rd December. I was dispatched into town earlier on a mission to buy some beurre de baratte. If you're anything like me, you'll have heard of salted and unsalted butter and that's probably the extent of your butter knowledge (ie, good for 2 minutes including questions!). However, I've just learned that beurre de baratte is "butter made the old-fashioned way; churned rather than extracted with a centrifuge". I must admit to never having heard of this "centrifuge" method - I'd always thought that butter was still made by churning - albeit on an industrial scale. We'll see..

Listening to the news that the terrorist thought to be responsible for the Berlin truck atrocity has been shot dead in Milan at 3am this morning, it struck me that someone ought to point out to would-be jihadis that there's one great flaw in their rationale. As I understand it, these 'martyrs' are promised 72 virgins in the afterlife - but maybe they wouldn't be so keen to die for the cause if it was pointed out to them beforehand that this would also mean 72 mothers-in-law..

22nd December. To me, a Mens VIIIs Final is one of the great sporting events and the Olympic Final at Rio in the summer was no exception. Best watched in full screen.

This isn't a good time to be a pig in the Pays Basque. One of our favourite shops in town is Maison Montauzer.. and one of the gastronomic highlights of the next few days will be a lunch of Montauzer's boudin blanc with sautéd apple.. in which I'm afraid Monsieur Porc will play a starring role. This is an annual treat that's greatly anticipated by yours truly.

It hasn't escaped my notice that there's a growing pile of intriguingly wrapped packages under the Christmas tree.. So far, I've have been able to resist having a surreptitious squeeze and rustle of a few of the more tempting ones - but I'm making no promises. Sooner or later, I'm gonna blow! ☺

With only a few days left to run to Christmas, here's a radio station that will help to put you in the festive mood while you search the house for those elasticated waist pants!

21st December. Today sees us 'enjoying' the shortest day of the year.. From now on, the days will get longer and longer until the long-awaited day when my shorts make their public appearance again!  

20th December. Into town this morning to do some food shopping for Christmas - the highlight of which was a visit to the indoor market to buy some cheese. The range and variety of cheese has to be seen to be believed.. I was under orders to return only with a Vacherin Mont d'Or (left) and a Brillat-Savarin (right).. I was sorely tempted to disobey my instructions and return with an armload! One of these days, I'd like to have a meal composed entirely of cheese (from mild to strong.. with wines and bread to match.) Then there were the poultry counters.. selling everything from free range turkeys to guinea fowl, chapons (capons), ducks, geese, pheasant, quail plus others I can't remember. And for English readers, hardly a Brussels sprout to be seen!☺

19th December. Madame came out with another couple of her expressions the other day: "mâtiné cochon d'inde".. and "trois fois rien".. I think the first expression refers to an animal of unknown origin. The second one means three times nothing - or, as we might say: a very small quantity - like zilch or peanuts.

7th December. Feeling in need of some fresh air and, more importantly, a vin chaud, we shot down to Biarritz in the late afternoon. One of the odd things about Biarritz is that there's a distinct absence of cafés with atmosphere - strange but true. We tried a couple of places but with no joy - no vin chaud.. We ended up on the Grande Plage at the Café de la Grande Plage - and settled for a hot chocolate while we watched the sun going down. It was still warm enough to be sat outside on the seafront. If anyone knows of a good café in Biarritz, drop me a line - please!

We had a very pleasant surprise last night.. we'd been invited to a friend's for an apéro.. but when we arrived it soon became clear that we were actually going to be treated to something very special instead. Our friend had grown up in Arzacq, a commune that sits astride the border between Les Landes and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, close to Pau, and one of the regional specialities is Garbure.. (also a great favourite of mine). We were six around the table - and we were served from a huge steaming tureen.. I think it went back to the kitchen twice more to be refilled..! After that, we still managed to do justice to her homemade crême caramel (right).. A great evening!

6th December. I don't often recommend books I've read to readers of this blog - but here's one that you should find a place for. I'm grateful to 50% of my Australian readers (OK, one person!) for recommending James Rebanks "The Shepherd's Life" to me, and I'm more than happy to pass it on. (Thanks for the tip Sue!) This autobiographical account describes in some detail the life of a shepherd/sheep breeder in England's Lake District through the seasons. Health Warning: I don't think a page goes by without sheep being mentioned!

It would be fair to say that my bookshelves are not exactly groaning with sheep sagas of any description. However, in one of publishing's success stories this year, the author's passion for a way of life that came to him through a family involvement stretching back some 600 years jumps off the page as he describes with unexpected lyricism the appeal of working closely with his Herdwick sheep on his beloved land. I surprised myself by enjoying this fascinating insight into the normally closed world of the Lakeland sheep farmer. 
I've only ever seen the Lake District from the perspective of a tourist so this behind-the-scenes look at the harsh reality of farming against a bleak climatic background was eye-opening to me. Here's the man himself talking to ABC Australia's Richard Fidler. (well worth a listen) 

The final words in the book resonated with me: "This is my life. I want no other". I think the world would be a better place if more of us could say this. At the risk of sounding smug, his words express exactly how I feel about our life here in the Pays Basque.

The NY Times takes a look at the man behind the book.

I think there are parallels with the pastoral life here in the Pays Basque. This is a powerful poem that explains the visceral attachment Basques feel for their land and their house:

My Father's House - by Gabriel Aresti, 1963 (translated from the original Basque):

I shall defend the house of my father.
Against wolves, against drought, against usury, against the Justice,
I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall lose cattle, orchards and pinewoods;
I shall lose interests, income and dividends,
But I shall defend the house of my father.
They will take away my weapons and with my hands
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will cut off my hands and with my arms
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will leave me without arms, without shoulders and without breasts,
And with my soul I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall die, my soul will be lost, my descendants will be lost,
But the house of my father will remain standing.

The love for his way of life as expressed by James Rebanks is of a similar intensity to that of our Basque hosts at the gîte we rented on arrival here in 2007. I wrote in Post No 10 that: 
"One Saturday evening, we were invited down for drinks with M and Mme D.. It was still warm and we sat outside. He had a bottle of pastis, a bottle of home-made pineau and a bottle of malt whisky on the table. He speaks French with an accent so strong you could lean on it..! At one point he was talking about his love for his land, his farm and his animals and his eyes clouded with tears.."
If Controller Household asks what you'd like for your Christmas stocking, then assuming there's some financial headroom left after the mandatory bottle of Glenmorangie (as previously advised), see if you can slip in a late request for a copy of James Rebanks' "The Shepherd's Life".

4th December. England finished their season yesterday with a convincing win over Australia at Twickenham by 37-21. It has to be said that England rode their luck in the opening minutes as Australia made a blistering start. But for some close refereeing decisions, the Wallabies would easily and deservedly have been out of sight after 15 minutes of non-stop attacking rugby, inspired no doubt by the need to prove a point after being on the wrong end of a 3-0 series whitewash against England earlier in the year. England had clearly given Eddie Jones a good listening to at half time because after the break they simply blew Australia away and virtually all of the second half was played in Australian territory. The Wallabies are a classy side with many talented attack-minded players - such as the all action Hooper, Pocock, Falau, Haylett-Petty, etc - but I think England had self-belief in spades - and, importantly, a stronger bench.

Australia could rightly feel aggrieved with some of the refereeing decisions.. the replay after a Marland Yarde try was given by the TMO clearly showed it to be a knock on - and I think Haylett-Petty was unlucky to be given his marching orders for a mindless late tackle on Mike Brown. On another day, with another referee, it would have merited just a penalty. Having said that, I think England deserved their win. It augurs well for the Six Nations next spring.

Each time we drive north from here, we pass the turn-off for Biscarrosse after about an hour - and it's somewhere that's been on my "must see" list for a long time. Biscarrosse was once the centre for flying boat operations in France when, for a few short years, many people thought that these magnificent aeroplanes represented the future of aviation - especially on the transatlantic routes. This remarkable aircraft - the Latécoère 521(right & below) had six engines - four pulling and two pushing - and it could carry 72 passengers and stay aloft for 33 hours..(gulp!) This manufacturer had some strange ideas.. (see here) Looking at the finished product, it seems to me that the aeroplane was assembled by someone who hadn't read the instructions..
A museum has been established at Biscarrosse to celebrate the golden age of the flying boat in France. Have a look at the Biscarrosse webcam..

3rd December. A splendid lunch yesterday in good company. I'm on the committee of a local association and our president had kindly invited us all to his home for a seasonal lunch. There were ten of us seated around a long table.. and we quickly got up to taxying speed with the aid of some 10 year old Aberlour single malt whisky. 

He told us that the day would have been his sister's 90th birthday. (Sadly, she passed away in June 2015). He showed us a photograph of his sister in happier times with her husband after the war. We raised our glasses to a very special lady.

She and her parents had been actively involved during WWII in sheltering shot-down Allied pilots and helping them to return to the UK via Spain and Gibraltar. They had been arrested in early 1943 and had suffered cruelly in their interrogations and during their subsequent deportation to the hell holes that were the concentration camps of Buchenwald (the father) and Ravensbrück (mother and 16 year old daughter). 

During the hubbub of conversation that followed, this story set me thinking  and my thoughts went back to someone I'd met a long time ago. I'd spoken to the president's sister a few times and I was always struck by her physical resemblance to a lady I once knew on a Greek island in the 1960s. She was a Jew and she had been deported from the island, along with almost 1700 others, via a long and harrowing journey to Auschwitz. Amazingly she survived - and she was one of a handful who returned after being liberated. She lived next door to me in the old town and sometimes I'd hear her screaming during the night. She once showed me a faded blue number tattooed on her left forearm. She had a haunted expression on her face and looked at least ten years older than her husband (who was actually older than her). She'd seen things that no-one should ever see. RIP Maria.

Friday, 4 November 2016

236. Season of mists etc

30th November. I've been listening to several versions of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus - it has to be one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written. I like the interpretation below by the Vienna Boys' Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben). I might have said this before here but music like this is the perfect rebuttal to those who think we emerged dripping from the primeval ooze aeons ago and that we simply exist, without a soul.

Here's a beautifully sung Italian flash-mob a cappella version from the Galleria in Turin.. (it starts at 2:17)

27th November. We were out early yesterday evening in nearby Lahonce at an exhibition of paintings (mainly watercolours) by Madame's painting group. Of course, France being France, all of them had prepared little foodie treats that were laid out temptingly close by - along with some interesting looking bottles. I've met this group a few times now but I'm still embarrassed by my inability to put names to people I've previously met. I was talking to the husband of one of the artists and he is promising / threatening to teach me bridge. He told me that there are a couple of sociable bridge clubs in the area. We'll see. I'm not 100% sure that this is for me. 

24th November. If you're anything like me and you only have to hear the magical thrummm of a Merlin-engined Spitfire for it to send an electric shiver racing through your bones, then this will give you a thrill - and all without having to leave the house! Imagine being given one of these at the tender age of 18.. (Turn the volume up). I grew up close to an airfield where the last Spitfires in RAF service were based. The sight of an all-silver Spitfire flying overhead my school was a daily occurrence in the 1950s. In one of those curious juxtapositions of events, a few months before the last Spitfire left active service in 1957, the maiden flight of the English Electric P1B (below) - a Mach 2 beast - took place just across the Ribble estuary at Warton. I doubt if either of those organisations concerned were aware of the significance of the other.
A large vee-shaped formation of cranes has just gone over the house heading south..  and most of them sounded as if they were chuckling. Seemed like a good idea to me! Why do they fly in formation though? I knew you'd ask.. Look here.
23rd November. It's been raining all day here so we took a gamble and went across the border to Spain for some shopping. As we'd hoped, the supermarket was blessedly free of the seasonal crowds who come in coaches from all over south west France at this time of the year to fill up their drinks cupboards..! There was snow on the mountains there and the car indicated 4½°C (40°F).

Never a Dull Moment Dept: Madame just came out with another of her classic colourful expressions: "passer du coq à l'âne.." or going from the cock to the donkey.. Or, as we'd say more prosaically in English - changing the subject - or, from the sublime to the cor blimey.  Try it out the next time the vicar calls around for his annual sherry.. 

19th November. I came across these lines of Dylan Thomas earlier.. “And I rose in rainy autumn, And walked abroad in a shower of all my days...”. I don't think there's ever been a poet who used words and language quite like him.

The view down the garden has changed during the last week.. We have a platane that overlooks the terrace and last weekend I removed this year's growth of branches - leaving a stark skeleton behind. We also have a maple down the bottom of the garden and within the last day or two it's started to drop its leaves. In this case, a picture's worth a thousand words:

16th November. You can always tell when the current French president is getting nervous about the possibility of a resurgence of support for Nicolas Sarkozy (his nightmare opponent) as some old 'story' gets dusted off anew in another attempt to smear him. The latest story to do the rounds is a "claim" by a French-Lebanese businessman that the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave €50m (£43m) to fund Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 campaign for the French presidency. Funny old thing, isn't it, that this claim has taken almost 10 years to surface - completely coincidentally - only days before the presidential primaries for the Republicans party.. Sarkozy has been investigated frequently - he's been treated appallingly - he's had his apartment searched while he was away, he's been interrogated for hours, accused of just about everything short of badger watching on Clapham Common at 1am - but all to no avail. The Left-leaning French magistrates have never been able to make any of these unsubstantiated charges stick - so once again, it's out with the smears.. sowing doubt in the minds of the electorate. If he wins through to the second round of the primaries, stand by for more (unproven) revelations. 

15th November. Biarritz was strangely quiet this morning.. This is the time of the year when several businesses take the opportunity to close their doors for a couple or three weeks - either to give their hard-pressed staff a break after the long season, or to re-decorate, or both. Our old favourite Bar Jean was closed, as was the Art Deco Plaza Hotel.. Despite these very minor whinges, it was a pleasure to wander the pavements free of the human congestion of just a few short weeks ago. It's a place we never tire of visiting and having the place to ourselves for once was a treat. In case you were wondering, Biarritz is a town that is active all the year around.. with two months (July-August) when life is very hectic.. but this was it this morning..

14th November. This afternoon a trip to the new IKEA shopping centre just outside Bayonne was called for.. Now known as "Ametzondo Shopping", it's an unimaginably gargantuan complex on 3 levels - about the size of at least 8-10 aircraft hangars (if not more). To your wizened correspondent, it's not on a human scale. In wandering around IKEA, we ended up in what looked like a warehouse, but which in reality was still the shop, with racks laden with goods towering 60 feet - and more - high above us. In the last few days, many other shops have now opened for business in these vast spaces. I found the whole experience charmless and depressing - and I couldn't wait to get out. It was like the foretaste of a "one size fits all" future.. In the middle of all the glitz, the bright lights and glitter, I spotted a lone Basque farmer - wearing his beret - looking lost. I wonder if it will take off with the locals.

To me, places like these point to a worrying trend. If, in future, we all shop at these vast commercial centres, and read the same books, listen to the same music, watch the same films, buy the same furniture, have the same likes and dislikes, it will be heaven for the manufacturers and suppliers of these mass produced consumer goods. However, if people only have access to identical cultural offerings, how can they ever develop independent and original thought? How can original voices emerge and be heard?

In Bayonne and Biarritz, there are still a number of family owned shops but with the continuing shift towards the convenience and competitiveness of shopping online, coupled with the advent of all-in-one shopping centres (with free parking), the day will soon dawn when quirky individual businesses will be forced to close their doors. In the time we've been living here, we've seen several old established family concerns cease trading.

After that, we drove south to the refreshing normality of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, that dazzled in the bright sunlight. Difficult to be sure but it seemed free of tourists.

We walked along the coastal path from Anglet to Biarritz yesterday afternoon under threatening skies, heading for Le Rayon Vert, a friendly beach-side café for a final drink there before it closed for the season. There was a definite end-of-season mood there - with the staff tidying up things prior to a 3½ month shut-down. The skies outside were grey and rain showers were sweeping in from Spain. The seas were a wintry green-grey and it was difficult to remember that only 2 weeks ago that people were sunbathing. In the warmth of the café, vintage rock and roll was being played..
12th November. England extended their unbeaten run with a convincing 37-21 win against a below-par South African Springboks side yesterday. (England still managed to leak too many points)
11th November. I read somewhere out there in cyberspace this morning that France is a monarchy disguised as a republic - whilst the UK is a republic disguised as a monarchy. I think there's a truth buried in there somewhere.

I think the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election could be summed up thus:

There is good news and bad news:

The good news is that Mrs Clinton was not elected. The bad news is that Trump was.

10th November. I must be getting soft in my old age but this made me laugh..!

One to annoy the traditionalists - an electronic version of J S Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". To my untutored ear, this sounds every bit as good as the organ or orchestral versions (if not better if I'm honest). Volume to max and open the windows!!
(There was this song by the Beach Boys that was also inspired by Bach - but with a less happy outcome.)

9th November. What is it about this melody that I find irresistible?

I'm not going to talk about / mention / refer to / whinge about / go on and on about the outcome of the US Presidential Election except to say I think the electorate got it about right. In my view, there's long been a whiff of something very unsavoury about Hillary and Bill - plus I don't think she was helped by the fact that the central plank of her campaign was all about her wish to be the first woman president.. I don't think the fact that she was female should have entered into it. It's her perceived lack of competence, sense of entitlement and untrustworthiness that did for her in the end - plus I don't think that the electorate took kindly to her husband lurking in the shadows. I think it speaks volumes for Trump that with only a fraction of the financial resources available to Mrs Clinton (a reported $1.3bn) and zero politics on his CV, he still managed to emerge victorious. I'm glad I didn't have to make the choice between The Donald and Mrs Clinton. Both candidates were flawed but I think The Donald was less flawed where it mattered most. I know it's shallow of me but I don't think I could have stood 4 years of her chipmunk smile..  

5th November. I think the great Irish roar that rose up from the crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago yesterday would have been heard in the International Space Station as Ireland (my second team!) beat New Zealand's All Blacks for the first time in their history.. Here's the entire match - I think this should be watched full screen with a dram of Glenmorangie - and savoured...
 Something completely different for you - a live feed from the International Space Station..

4th November. Turning the clocks back last weekend reminded me that Autumn is making a belated appearance in these parts. Other tell-tale signs: we lit our woodburner last night.. and the Adour was hidden in seasonal mist the other morning. I was further reminded of the change of the season by a welcome email from Perry & Caroline. They're a charming Anglo-Dutch couple who live in on the border of the Gers and the Hautes-Pyrénées a couple of hours to the east of us. This is the real France profonde..(aka "Here be dragons" country!) Perry is a very talented artist whose cartoons always make me laugh. This one on the right captures the essence of the onset of Autumn here.. with that unmistakable smell of roasting chestnuts. Here's another couple of his that tickled me..!
Mamie Wilkinson