Sunday, 28 February 2010

47. Wind in the Willows

28th February 2010. An Alerte Rouge for 60-odd departements in France last night.. Strong winds swept the country overnight - the storm crossed the Bay of Biscay from Spain and coasted in around La Rochelle and devastated some low-lying villages when a high tide, whipped up by the strong south-westerly winds, breached a dyke and flooded villages and farmland. So far around 45 dead have been reported with many being drowned in their homes.

The idea of drowning during the night in one's own house is far from our thoughts when we go to bed and so the unimaginable shock of waking up in the wee small hours with the house flooded and no lighting must have been appalling for those involved, especially the elderly and infirm. Many houses were flooded to a depth of 1m 80.. (almost 6 feet) It doesn't bear thinking about..

I now feel somewhat guilty about my reactions during the storm because I was lying in bed, listening to the noise outside and feeling content that, with the new windows fitted, things were now much quieter.

2nd March 2010.
We were on the beach at Anglet this afternoon and I heard some unfamiliar honking sounds coming from above.. Looking up, I spotted several great straggling broadly vee-shaped formations of cranes beating their way back to their north European summer retreats from Africa(?). There were a good few hundred of them. My next question is what is the difference between a stork and a crane..? I’m no ornithologist as you can guess.. This must be a sign that spring is on the way.. The car thermometer registered 22C yesterday at 3pm on the way to the beach.

This film was made in November in the Ardennes region of France as the birds flew south for the winter. What I saw today was the return journey as they flew north back to Scandinavia and northern Europe. 
Our pooch (9 this summer) met another English cocker spaniel, a 10 months old bitch, down there and the two of them started racing about like a coupla eejits.. (“Wow, another dog!”) It was so funny to watch.. Would have been hard pressed to say which one was the 8 year old.. Strange, isn’t it, how dogs never lose their fascination with each other.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

46. Basque cuisine (& no tin opener jokes please!)

20th February 2010. In previous posts I've mentioned a few Basque dishes, notably the Gâteau basque, but I think I should apologise in advance to the Confrérie du Gâteau basque for what I'm about to say about their revered cake..

At the 2009 Fete du Gâteau basque in Cambo (below), the judges were photographed filling out Next Of Kin forms before trying to speed-eat eight Gâteaux basques* against the clock (although I could be wrong here..) No, they were really suggesting alternative uses for the cake in the middle.. (I heard later that the winning suggestion was "Boat Anchor.." with "Base for garden umbrella" coming a close second)
(Note from Management: 1 Gâteau basque, but 2 Gâteaux basques)

There's even a museum dedicated to the Gâteau basque.. Try as I might, I just can't imagine a museum for Dairy Cream Sponges or Custard Slices in the UK - but that's part of the magic of France.. Gâteaux basques come in two main varieties (and an HGV licence is needed for both!) with either a black cherry or a crème pâtissière filling. Madame usually buys the cakes (I'm only allowed to buy them when there's a 'k' in the month) and I've never really been that enamoured with the black cherry variety of Gâteau basque.. finding them a bit heavy going, rather like a flywheel in cake form. Last Sunday, I was off out to buy a couple of baguettes from the baker in the centre of town when I had a sudden hankering to try a Gâteau basque with a crème pâtissière filling. I found one at a pâtisserie (I've been "hedumacated" not to buy cakes at bakers) and brought that home. It was chalk & cheese compared to the black cherry variety. Of course, Madame wasn't too keen but, as far as I'm concerned, it's the one I prefer.

So, back to Basque specialities. A feature of Basque cooking is that the colours of the Basque flag - red and green - often feature in the dishes (usually red & green peppers). I think my first lip-smacking experience was at La Buvette des Halles, a small café that had just opened in the centre of St Jean de Luz adjacent to the covered market (that sells meat, poultry, fish & all types of sea food, fruit & veg and cheese). After the market had finished for the day and while all the detritus was being swept up, we saw a chap quickly setting up tables and chairs. His kitchen was inside the market building and his fish-orientated menu featured much that had come straight from the market - so without further ado we sat down at a table in the shade of the platanes.

I still remember what we had that first time - Madame had a tomato and mozzarella salad and I had 9 oysters, then we both had grilled sardines (we didn't know then that they'd been cooked on a plancha) accompanied by a pichet of cold rosé. Everything was fresh and full of taste. Coffee, a Café Creme cigarillo and the bill followed - 105 francs - which at the time was only ~£11. If we could have pressed the rewind button and had it all again we would have! Delicious - and in such a simple setting - and as a bonus, it was ideal for people watching. It was his first year in business and we've been back every year (bar a couple) since then.

His menu is a véritable (as they like to say here) catalogue of Basque cuisine - he serves all of the following staples of the Basque kitchen: Ttoro, Pipérade, Omelette au piment doux, Axoa d'espelette & Poulet basquaise and probably a few more that I've forgotten. Plus a few standards like sardines, grilled tuna, dressed crab, oysters, moules, entrecôte steak or confit de canard.

For freshness of taste (and price) I don't think he can be beaten. It's one of our favourite places when it gets a bit warmer. Recommended: Light lunch? Go for the sardines. Feeling brave? Tuna with pipérade will slow you down a bit..

I remember after our first holiday down in the Pays Basque we were keen to try sardines on our barbecue when we returned home. After they all fell through the grill and smoked out the neighbourhood we realised that frozen ones just won't do! And you need a plancha..

Here's the late Keith Floyd attempting to make a Pipérade in a Basque lady's kitchen in St Jean de Luz and  getting it all so wrong. Imagine the reaction if a Frenchman was ensconced in a Yorkshire kitchen attempting to demonstrate for the viewers - and the lady of the house - 'ow ze famoos pudding de York-sheer was made.. I think he escaped very lightly! (Don't misunderstand me.. I had a lot of time for Keith Floyd.. it took some nerve to do what he did here. Can't imagine the saintly Delia trying that!) 
22nd February 2010. 15C this morning. I went to Dancharia in Spain to fill the car up with diesel.. It's crept up to a tad over 1€/litre (~88p) - presumably in the light of the Total refinery dispute in N France which threatens to disrupt the supply of petrol to the country. While I was there, I picked up a few odds and ends and had an extra virgin cold pressed hot chocolate.. (as you do).

23rd February 2010
. A few months ago, we were asked by A - an old friend of J-M in Tours - if we’d like to go for a flight with him one day from the Basque Aero Club at Biarritz airport.. A is a semi-retired fighter pilot (French Air Force) and he's a flying instructor at the Aero Club. Biarritz Airport is not that busy and the main operators who use it are Air France, RyanAir or EasyJet. Occasionally a biz jet flies in. We were there once waiting to board a RyanAir flight to the UK when I sensed that there was something going on. I noticed a posse of gendarmerie motorcyclists discreetly standing by with a few heavy-looking characters talking into their cuffs. An Airbus landed and, as it taxied in, a small tricolour could be seen fluttering from the flight deck window. It taxied up to the terminal and shut down in quick time while a stairway was hurriedly wheeled into place. There were a few impressive looking 'suits' nervously waiting below.. A minute later the door opened and there was El Presidente Sarkozy himself.. with MAM* two steps behind him.

Anyway, on the day we flew with A, all was blissfully peaceful and quiet. We opened the hangar doors and pushed out the (very) small aircraft (a Robin DR 400 120) that we were going to commit aviation in and, after a few external checks, we strapped ourselves in, quickly ran through a short checklist, called the tower to ask for start clearance and then started up. All very simple and minimalist! Once the engine and oil temperatures were showing the correct values, we called for taxy clearance and then we were off taxying around (above) to the threshold of the active runway. Then, following a quick look around, A released the brakes and opened the throttle and we were off down the runway - all 7,382ft of it.
We climbed out over Biarritz before turning north over the sea to follow the coastline. At around this point, A turned to me and said "You have control.." (at that point I could sense Madame watching me like a hawk from the rear seat!) and we continued flying north along the beaches at Anglet before he told me to turn onto an easterly heading to fly up the northern banks of the Adour. I'm reminded of the classic comment written on a student pilot's report. It went: "Once Bloggs climbs into an aircraft, he starts a chain of events over which he has no further control.." Ouch!

Biarritz
It was a day when I would normally have been rowing and down below I could see a couple of 'yolettes' (fours) outlined against the silvery Adour like pond skimmers.

Bayonne
The rowing club lies just above the second bridge up on the pic above on the left hand bank. At this point we turned right hand down a bit (technical aviation term) towards the Pyrenees and suddenly my mind map of how the Pays Basque fitted together suddenly took on an extra dimension as the landscape unfolded before us.

St Jean de Luz
After St Jean de Luz we landed back at Biarritz, refuelled the aircraft and then taxied around to the hangar and locked it all away again. Great fun.. and I wish I could afford to do it more often. Many thanks to A for his kind gesture.. the Pays Basque looks just as good from the air.

To wind up with, here's the pooch enjoying himself on our local beach a day or two ago. The clip won't win any awards I know - I was really just testing out my new camera.
video
And a clip of the sea rolling in at Biarritz..
Some Mark Knopfler playing 'Local Hero' to finish up with:
* MAM = Michele Alliot Marie

Thursday, 18 February 2010

45. French pop

19th February 2010. Contrary to what the UK media would have you believe, French pop music does exist and it comes in flavours other than Johnny Hallyday..! On the BBC, there is a constant drip drip of negativity towards any music emanating from across the channel. I remember when Andrea Bocelli (Italian I know) had a well-deserved hit across Europe with "Time to say good-bye" and some clown on Radio 2 introduced it by saying, "This has topped all the European charts over the last few weeks which means it's going to be a flop here.." (ye godfathers..)
video
Despite that introduction, it was a smash in the UK too. Johnny Hallyday is not rated at all by the UK pop music cognescenti either.. He's been around almost as long as Cliff Richard but that's where any similarity stops. Johnny puts on a dynamic stage show - he's got presence and power in spades and some great songs. He attracts a young audience while anodyne old Cliff is the favourite of the mums & grannies.

Here he is with one of his greatest hits Que je t'aime.. (with a very Darth Vader-ish intro! - "Feel the force, Johnny!") (hard to see where he keeps his pension book in that suit!)
video
There are a couple of good gizmos available for listening to French radio via a PC. RFM plays a mix of English language hits from the 80s and contemporary French songs with minimal blah-blah between them. (If you like it, right click on the RFM logo to create a shortcut to it on your desktop). We used to tune into RFM on the long drive south from Calais to the Pays Basque each summer and it wasn’t too long before we worked out what the ‘summer song’ for that year was as they seem to have a limited play list.

A classic summer song in 1971 (seems like yesterday!) that you couldn't escape from even if you wanted to was Michel Delpech's monster hit Pour Un Flirt. It still receives lots of air time even today. It's one of those annoyingly catchy tunes (aaagghh - those trumpets..!) that you can't stop yourself singing along to. 
video
One that I would have liked to escape from would have been Tanita Tikaram's 1988 hit "Twist in my Sobriety" - played to death by RFM.

My only major gripe at RFM is that they do insist on playing James Blunt.. He should cut out the middleman and call the Samaritans direct thus sparing us from the misery of listening to his songs..

So who are the French pop music ‘greats’..? There’s the so-stylish and enigmatic Françoise Hardy – all cheekbones, hair, eyes and.. steady! She had a whole stream of hits in France – some of which she translated into English for the UK & US markets. And, although not a favourite of mine, let's not forget the evergreen Mireille Mathieu – never has the Marseillaise been sung with such passion as in her rendition. Liane Foly too is an extremely under-rated song stylist as well as being a very funny lady. See if you can find her intriguing and exotic sounding Au fur et à mesure on the web somewhere..

Michel Fugain had a great deal of success (in 1972..) with this oh-so-French summer song:
Radio TSF Jazz broadcasts on FM in the Paris area and it plays cool jazz non-stop. This desktop Francophone radio widget also has TSF Jazz FM on it, in addition to more French radio stations than you'll ever need.  

That's enough to be going on with..! Apologies in advance if you start humming Pour Un Flirt all day!

And now for something completely different - the late great John Candy in "Trains, Planes & Automobiles".. If you haven't seen it, you've missed a very very funny film..
I know this has got nothing to do with the Pays basque but this is one funny film.. take a look at the trailer:

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

44. Over the hump

16th February 2010. I've never enjoyed the first three months of the year. Dark, cold, wet and with the prospect of Spring seeming like a distant mirage. And, to crown it all, the bank balance is normally in recovery mode after the excesses of Christmas as well. So here we are - half way through it - and with just another six weeks to go.

Still no rowing for me.. hopefully it won't be too long before I can get in a boat again. After last Saturday's outing, one of the guys at the club sent me a slideshow of pictures taken on the river. They all looked c o l d..

Seeing F in one of the pictures reminded me of an incident a year or two ago out on the river in a 'yolette' (a 'four'). On this particular day I'd started off in the cox’s seat (the one who does the steering and shouting the orders..) which was a bit tricky because I don’t know all the orders in French yet.. There were 2 nanas (ie, female ladies of the opposite persuasion) occupying seats 2 & 3, and one was early getting her oar in all the time and the other one was late all the time.. (Not like a woman to be late getting her oar in I thought!).. Anyway, F, who was rowing up at 'bow', suddenly decided he had to have a P for relief - right now! This is completely in line with the inalienable right of all Frenchmen to pee al fresco whenever, wherever and in front of whoever they want - this sub-clause must be enshrined in the Constitution somewhere (and, believe me, it's exercised prolifically during the Fete de Bayonne!).

Now given that a nana was immediately in front of F, do you think this would have put him off for one moment..? Er, beh non.. The nanas in the boat kept their eyes discreetly towards the stern of the boat (so they said!) while F got to his feet. From my position in the stern - but facing forward - I watched the whole thing unfolding (no pun intended!). 'Yolettes' are pretty stable as long as everyone is sat down but for some unaccountable reason, as soon as F got to his feet and started rummaging around in the trouser area, a vicious wobble started up which he tried to counteract by shifting his weight. Alas, it was all to no avail because he suddenly found himself leaning past the vertical in one direction while the boat had a wobble on in the other direction..! From that point on, there was no way back and into the Adour he toppled - in a tangle of arms & legs - with all the grace of a horse pushed into a swimming pool. Needless to say, sympathy was in short supply.. as we were all too busy crying with laughter. Luckily, a coach was nearby in a motorboat and she picked him up to return him to the clubhouse.

I had Eric around yesterday to fix the halogen spots in the kitchen. Since he installed them 2 years ago, they've been nothing but trouble so yesterday he came around and replaced all the units free of charge. I think he'd originally been given a duff set to fit. He's also going to give us an estimate for replacing the garden door to the garage and the main garage doors. The garden door looks a touch moth eaten and I suspect it's only the paint and the 2 long hinges that are holding it together.

Now that all the double glazing in the house has been fitted, we've been thinking about a new front door as I can see daylight around the locks and the cold comes whistling in through there. We asked the company who provided the new windows for an off-the-cuff estimate and we were told somewhere in the region of 2,500 - 3,500€! Shorely shome mishtake..

The temperatures have finally risen from around freezing point and the ground is no longer iron hard. Looking outside, the palm tree looks bedraggled and the fronds are dripping in the light rain. (where's that number for the Samaritans..?)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

43. Junk that BBQ! Vive la plancha!

4th February 2010. One of the best things we bought since arriving down here is a "plancha"..

Stunned silence in the snug..

"C'est quoi - une plancha..?"
I hear you ask?

It's a means of cooking outdoors that consigns the BBQ firmly to the Stone Age.. (Cue howls of derision, chest beatings, etc) Now I realise that this may be heresy to a few readers - as there's some strange psychology tied up with the Western male fixation with BBQs that has never been satisfactorily explained. There are many elements at work here - the playing with fire, squatting over a smoking heap of charcoal that refuses to get going, Suburban Man reverting to Hunter/Gatherer (joke apron optional), the outsize tools, the "know how", etc etc. The stage whispered "tutting" from the neighbours as washing is hastily taken indoors due to the smokescreen drifting over the hedge that the Royal Navy could hide a medium sized warship behind (if we had any left)..

And then there's the food that's been cooked on a BBQ.. we've all suffered the chicken legs that have been cremated on the outside and are virtually raw inside - accompanied by the familiar cry of "It'll be OK, just scrape off the black bits..".

Those days are gone.

A plancha is a heavy slab of cast iron (I suspect ours is a recycled bulkhead from the "Bismarck") that's been enamelled and it sits on top of a gas burner or two. Light the gas, wipe it with a smidgen of oil, wait 5 minutes and you're in business. It's simplicity itself. Here's ours (right) :

Once you've tasted food cooked on one, there's no going back. Sardines cooked on it have never tasted better.. It does fish, meat and chicken beautifully. I think planchas may be Spanish in origin but they are omnipresent in the Pays Basque. This clip is best with the sound off!

I think I'll be heaving ours out of the garage in a month or so (it weighs a ton..) and then it sits on our terrace through to October/November - & no, it won't blow away! Madame loves to cook on it and she cooks like an angel. My arduous tasks? In March I carry it out, and in November I clean it off & put it away again. In between that I sort out the drinks. Happy days.

PS With Feb 14th coming up, and if the thrill of sleeping in the dog-house has lost its appeal, then rescue is at hand..! The site offers 40% off French perfumes..

Sunday, 7th February 2010.
Went down to Socoa to have a look at the menu at Chez Pantxua.. ie, to see if we could afford to go there next weekend. We've been there several times before and for sea food it is in a class of its own. But - it's very popular with the resident Basque population and a couple of times when we've booked under my English surname, when we turned up on the day they've managed to look surprised and maintained - strangely enough - that they had no record of our reservation. Since then, we've taken to booking under Madame's rock solid Basque maiden name and we've experienced no further problems. This is the only place where we've met this attitude down here but it's worth bearing in mind should you ever wish to book there. Anyway, today we decided that it would be foolishly expensive (around 100€ for 2) for lunch so Madame said she would make something special next weekend. She can always outdo anything a restaurant can serve up anyway. And I can extract a cork with the best of them. We stopped off at St Jean de Luz on the way home and walked along the seafront watching the surfers. The temperature was hovering around 15C.

Tomorrow, we're having the remainder of the windows at "Piperade Towers" double glazed so we'll be one step closer to finishing all the thousand and one jobs that we've had to do in the house..

I just had one of those random memory moments - I was reminded of a conversation I had years ago.. I was telling a friend about my new watch and he came out with: "Yes, I used to have a watch like that - it would lose 2 minutes a day, regular as clockwork.." Still makes me laugh.

Now, it's fast approaching that* time of day but first - put your feet up, close your eyes and enjoy the beautiful tone of Michael Lucarelli's guitar as he interprets Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata".. (and filmed through a war surplus U boat periscope)

* "Apero" time!
PS. Style Tip: Ditch the flat 'at!

Monday, 1 February 2010

42. Basque primer

1st February 2010. On Saturday I went down to the rowing club at around the time that the crews normally return after their morning outings - just in time for a torrential downpour. It looked very wet out there on the river. They were all soaked to the skin but in good humour. (It's only water innit!) I remember one outing last year when I went out with F in a double sculler and as we left the pontoon, the sky had looked dark and vaguely threatening. We set off up the river when suddenly - from nowhere - a hailstorm started. Each piece of hail was about the size of a marble and was it ever painful. And with being in a boat and having to keep hold of the sculls, we didn't have a free hand to protect ourselves from the worst of it. Luckily we'd only rowed about half a mile upstream so we dashed back. Ouch ouch ouch! Felt as though my head had been shot-peened..

Glad to see the back of January - while it's been very cold down here we were lucky to escape the snow. Been out in the car this morning and I was intrigued by a road sign I kept seeing (don't start me off!). It said "Norabide Guziak". At first I thought it looked like one of my nightmare Scrabble hands.. but it's Basque for "Toutes Directions" - or "Through Traffic" in yer Anglo Saxon.. There's just nothing there to give you a clue is there? While we're on the subject, I'll run through my Basque language repertoire for you.. Milesker is please. Bai is yes. And, as you now know, Norabide Guziak is Through Traffic.. And that's it after living here for over 2 years.

I nipped over the border to pick up a few things (inc. a 2 litre bottle of Scotch for 16€) at the Venta supermarkets on the other side. Well worth a visit if in the area.

2nd February 2010. The car thermometer reckoned it was 15C.. And, as it was Pancake Tuesday, Madame made a stack of them with all kinds of exotic fillings - think the highlight was the chocolate & banana one, flambéed with rhum.. We went down to the beach at Anglet this afternoon and for the first time this year, it felt like spring was on the way. A silver mist hung over the Biarritz beach and the Pyrenees were white with snow.
Think Pancake Wednesday could be a good idea!