Tuesday, 15 December 2009

38. It's a sign!

Sitting in traffic this evening I felt my attention being drawn to a hypnotic green neon sign for a Pharmacie (chemist). The green cross design was sequencing through a mind-boggling series of rotations and flashes, including displaying the time and the temperature before going back into the flashing cycle. It reminded me of yet another difference in daily life between this side of the Channel and the other. Some French shopping institutions have evolved their own particular street signs - here are a few for the pharmacy.

The other distinctive ones I can recall are for Tabac (Tobacconists) and (this is where it gets slightly curious) Chevaline - horse butchers. You might wonder why they bother but if you happen to be looking for a specific type of shop they do make finding one that little bit easier.

I was trying to think of the UK equivalents.. and all I could come up with was the red and white spiral-striped barber's pole and the three golden balls for the pawnbrokers. Chemists sometimes had a gold mortar and pestle sign.
The illuminated Tabac sign is said to resemble a double ended carrot, often with TABAC spelled out.. Apparently the 'carrot' symbol stems from former times when pipe smokers would keep a piece of carrot in their tobacco pouch to keep their tobacco moist. When I used to smoke and I was gasping for a ciggy, the illuminated Tabac signs were a godsend.
I can understand the need for a easy-to-spot sign if you've a desperate need for a pharmacie or a Tabac - but a horse butchers? The sign for a horse butchers is a gilded horse's head that juts out from the wall. How many times have you found yourself dashing out of the house, all of a quiver for a horsemeat steak ("Just gotta have one!").. running around town with wild eyes looking for a shop with the gilded horse's head sign..? Exactly.. Here's a somewhat battle-damaged horse butchers (above right) from what looks like the immediate post-war years - and, incidentally, I don't think I'd be busting a gut to step inside this shop, would you? I'm reminded of the butchers in the film "Delicatessen".. 
I'm not sure that many Brits would ever contemplate the idea of eating horse meat - I think most would find the whole thing quite repugnant - but I must be honest, having tried it on 2 occasions, I have to admit that they were two of the best steaks I've ever had. I tried it once knowingly in France and the second time, in Italy, unknowingly. I won't be doing it again though.

During the Balkans conflicts in the mid 90s, over a period of 4 years I probably spent half that time based in Italy, just to the north of Venice. Madame came out a few times and, on one memorable occasion, we were out having dinner in a traditional restaurant in town with J, the wife of a colleague who was working. I'd become reasonably adept at decoding Italian menus and, being all pizza'd out, we decided we'd go for a meat dish. Feeling like trying something different, looking at the meat section, I spotted filetto di puledro.. It was clearly a fillet of some kind of meat so we ordered three. They arrived served in a reduced red wine sauce and we enjoyed them very much.. When it came to the bill, I asked the waitress what they were and eventually she said the word for a horse in Italian (cavallo) and then said 'piccolo' - meaning little.. ie, a foal. Eek!

Neither Madame or I felt too happy about that but our unease was as nothing compared to J's. I should have mentioned that she was a keen horsewoman. She went white and so I quickly ushered her outside as I thought she looked very close to a spectacularly lavish demonstration of projectile vomiting..

Moving swiftly on, while we're on the subject of Italy, one year I found a delicatessen in Italy that stocked two of Madame's favourite things combined into one.. It was a tin decorated in an ornate fin de siècle style that contained marrons glacés* that had been dipped in plain chocolate. To say that these hit the spot would be understating the case. And needless to say, I've never been able to find them again since.** And, coming back to the Pays Basque, last Christmas I went around all of the specialist chocolatiers in Bayonne hoping that one of them might have them, or might make some for me. I described what I was looking for but I met with the same universal response - or rather, lack of response - everywhere. No-one was interested in dipping a few marrons glacés in dark chocolate for me.. It was a demonstration of French culinary chauvinism -

"We don't do them like that here.."

Yes, I know that, but could you - just this once?

"If you want marrons glacés like that, you'd better go back to Italy.."

Etc etc.

Back to more domestic issues, we're having our Christmas dinner here at the weekend before we leave next week to go up to Paris. Commander-in-Chief (Home) has decreed that a Christmas pudding might just be on the agenda. Be still my beating heart!

* The brand was La Castagna Glassata Di Majani.. ricoperta di finissimo cioccolato fondente..

** Just found another site in Italy that has them! Guiliani I'll order some when we return in the New Year.

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