Sunday, 28 November 2010

100. Allegiances

28th November 2010. Gawd, 100 posts.. I really should get out more..

I see from studying the local weather data (trying to find out when this monsoon we seemed to be locked into is going to end) that the visible moon phase in Bayonne today is Waning Gibbous - which, if I were into howling at the moon, has a nice ring to it and could easily set me off. However, if you don't know what Waning Gibbous means, come and see me afterwards. (let me put you out of your misery - here) Waning Gibbous could easily be an American Country & Western singer as well!

Just to stop us from getting bored, this morning we were treated to hail - in addition to the more usual rain. Is there no end in sight..?

Now, rugby.. ah yes. Last night France were surprisingly hammered by the Wallabies 16-59 (and that's no misprint). I don't think I've ever seen such a one-sided points avalanche in such a short time involving two of the best sides in the world - in the second half the Aussies scored 46 points in 30 minutes (to France's 3). I started thinking this morning about who I support - as, I have to confess, last night I was supporting - wait for it - Australia. Friends in England have previously made jokey comments to the effect that, since moving here, I must surely now be supporting France - but that's not the case. My answer to them? Moving across the Channel hasn't changed a thing..

This is how it works:

When England play, I support them irrespective of who they're playing.
  • When the other home nations play each other - I'd support Ireland first, with Scotland an extremely close second. 
  • When any of the home nations (Wales, Scotland, Ireland) play a non-UK nation, I want them to win. Except for a France-Wales fixture - in which case I might support France (but doubtful).
  • I support France against any northern hemisphere non-UK nation.
  • Now introduce the southern hemisphere.. I'd support any northern hemisphere nation (except France) against any southern hemisphere nation
  • Southern hemisphere nations playing each other? I'd support Argentina if they're playing - otherwise I couldn't give a toss.
In the event that I can't decide who to support, then I usually support whoever plays the most attractive rugby with the fewest fouls. Foul play automatically swings my allegiance to the sinned against team. I must confess that I've never been able to warm to the All Blacks. Look at the haka on YouTube from 20-30 years ago and it was just a bit of harmless folklore. Now? It's been "improved" upon such that it embarrasses me to watch a serious rugby nation like NZ having to resort to the haka as a psychological weapon.. something that their opponents are supposed to "respect" it.. Give me a break! It's laughable. I think their opponents should ignore all this hokum.. and simply continue with their warm-up, read a newspaper, have a burger or whatever.       

Complicated this armchair sport isn't it..?!

29th November 2010. Finally, at last, am I dreaming..? Blue skies are back today - but according to the forecast we're set for 3 days of rain again as of tomorrow. As it was finally dry, I took the dog for a long run along the beach at Anglet as he's been more or less housebound for the last few weeks. On the way home I saw that the Pyrenees - which form a backdrop to Bayonne - were covered in snow..
I read this article today about the precarious financial situation in some parts of the Eurozone.. I wish I could say that I understood it all (or even half of it) - but I don't. For countries to take part in monetary union they had to satisfy economic convergence criteria - public sector borrowing, budget deficit, inflation, interest rates and much more had to be held within agreed limits. I always thought that these were only the technical financial deal-breakers. How about the efficiency and productivity of the underlying economy? Here's a prescient quote taken from a very readable article written in 1997 by the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements:

There is a widespread belief in the economics profession that nominal convergence - as expressed by the convergence criteria - is less important for a successful monetary union than real convergence. Real convergence encompasses factors such as labour mobility, price and wage flexibility, exposure towards external shocks, industrial structures, and so on. Judged by these factors, convergence among future members of the EMU still has a long way to go. This is important because to be successful a European monetary policy depends exactly on these factors. Without a high degree of real convergence, monetary policy is bound to have different effects in different parts of the monetary union. The very idea of a single European monetary policy would thus become unrealistic. The ECB would come under political pressure to accommodate mutually incompatible wishes from different parts of the monetary union. The result could only be a less than optimal monetary policy and rising inflation and interest rates.

For purely selfish reasons (pensions paid in £££s), I'd welcome a return to the former European currencies - the D-mark, the franc, the guilder, the peseta et al.. When we arrived in France in September 2007, a £1 was worth a worthwhile 1.48€. Just a few short months later, the rate had plummeted to around 1.03€, which equates to a fall in value of 31% (ouch!). It now stands at 1.18€ - which is a 21% fall since September 2007 (OK, a slightly lesser ouch! but still painful). If the French franc were to be re-introduced and the £ returned to its former trading position against it - somewhere near £1 = ~10Ffrs then I for one would be delighted. I'm not holding my breath though about the possible demise of the euro and a return to those old currencies - I think there's too much political capital invested in the Euro for it to fail. If it does though, I think the first country in the eurozone to display any cracks from the strain of supporting other less efficient economies would be Germany.

Wouldn't you agree though - just purely on the look of the former currency - that a 50 franc note featuring Racine:
or a 10 franc note with Voltaire:
is far more stylish than this anonymous and utilitarian 50€ note (worthy of East Germany):
As Del Boy might have put it: "Je reste ma valise.."
1st December 2010. Back to rain again this morning. It's preferable to snow which is what much of the rest of the country has to contend with but I'm starting to get a bit fed up with it now.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

99. Wet wet wet

22nd November 2010. More rain today. There's a tale of living in Italy in the paper today.. This classic anecdote caught my eye:

"Daniela and I were reporting the theft of her handbag at the local police station when the officer hunched over his old Olivetti asked if he could change the time of the crime to 10.40 pm rather than 10.30 because the number three key wasn’t working on his typewriter."

23rd November 2010. Yet more rain. Went to the local hairdressers where I combine a 6 weekly haircut with the opportunity to mangle the French language with A****y! Still raining when I came out..

24th November 2010. And yet more wet stuff.

I'm not much interested in pop music but every now and again I hear something on the radio that I realise has been haunting me for a decade (or three) and after a spot of inspired Googling, I usually find it. This 1980 track by the Korgis is a prime example:
I once read that our musical tastes are set to whatever was a hit when we were 17.. So think back to what was around musically when you were 17 and tell me I'm wrong. Early Beatles does it for me - that's all I'm saying!
25th November 2010. Thunder & shivering pooch & more rain during the night..

Lunch or dinner (or both!) at the Tour d'Argent in Paris with its unsurpassable views has long been an ambition for us. Duck is the speciality there and they have a legendary wine cellar. I spotted the following clip in today's Guardian to give you a taste.. (might be the closest I'll ever get!)
More information about La Tour d'Argent here.. but the description of how the famous caneton is prepared might put you off. It refers to the method of killing as strangulation - which implies a slow death - as opposed to the traditional wringing its neck method which I believe to be instantaneous.

Not somewhere I'd have chosen to dine alone either.. but I suppose that comes with the territory when you're a food critic (and your expenses will only cover a solo dinner). Also, I'm sufficiently 'Old School' to have worn a tie. I'm no fuddy-duddy but out of respect for my environment I would have worn one. I'm surprised that the maitre d' didn't lend him one - but then, we're talking about a Guardian journalist ..!

I'd not heard of Dehillerin, the kitchen supplier that he mentions early in the clip.. we normally come here to look at kitchen paraphernalia.  

(PS. I'll be glad when someone can make a film about Paris/France without an accordion in the background..)

There was an interesting story on the TF1 TV news this lunchtime that caught my eye about an Auberge-Relais - Pitaval - near Lyon (specialising in duck and foie gras) that offers courses in foie gras, duck and chocolate. Now - be honest - doesn't this clip make your mouth water..? 
 If only it was a bit closer..

This is very apt for today.. too wet to go out..
Another deluge as we speak.. torrential rain audible through the double glazing. And I can't believe Christmas is only one month away. Happy Thanksgiving to any American readers..!

26th November 2010. Last night was enlivened by the sound of rain again.. at one point it sounded as if the house was moving slowly through a car wash.. (I know - "Good for the garden") It's crystal clear why lawns flourish in the UK - it has a mild climate, free from excessively scorching summers or seasonal deluges of rain that respectively burn the grass and then drown it. Just a gentle summer heat and a constant sprinkling of rain throughout the year to encourage its steady growth. I'm reminded of the apocryphal story of a visitor at Hampton Court who asked the gardener there the secret of the velvet lawns. He replied, "Roll it and cut it... roll it and cut it. For 400 years."

I've been able to get out of the house with the dawg in between rain showers but while the sky's black I look at a few other blogs (confessions of a sad owld git!) and there's a phrase that repeats itself across several of them.. namely "How to survive in France" - as though living in a Western European country equates somehow to living in the Mato Grosso or a time-share in Somalia, North Yemen or Baghdad. A day's travel from the nearest Waitrose.. eek! 

27th November 2010. No prizes for guessing what the weather is doing this morning.. yes, it's another downpour. That means no rowing for me. If it starts to rain during an outing - OK - but to go out in a deluge means a couple of hours of rowing soaking wet which, believe me, is less than fun.

Today sees the last of all but one of the autumn rugby internationals. If, as seems likely, they're played in wet conditions, we aren't going to see much in the way of running rugby with ball in hand. It starts this afternoon with Italy v Fiji, followed by England's heavyweight clash with the Springboks, then Scotland will be looking to continue their winning form against Samoa, then a huge game for a struggling Wales v the seemingly unstoppable All Blacks before finishing up this evening with France v Australia - a game in which Australia will definitely want to re-discover their form. Ireland face Argentina tomorrow.

This wet weather has had me blowing the dust off some old CDs. Mark Knopfler at his best here:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

98. View from the grassy knoll..

20th November 2010. Brace yourself for another update to the saga of my long-suffering lawn.. The far third of the lawn was looking pretty sorry for itself after the long hot dry summer (complete with hosepipe ban) so a few weeks ago I raked all the dead grass out, tugged out some more entangled roots that had infiltrated from nearby bushes and trees before spreading some fertiliser and then fresh soil on top. I raked it all level and let it stand so it could settle a little before starting Phase 2.

Maybe I'm doing something wrong but the only visible result from my repeated attempts at re-seeding has been the newly corpulent appearance of the local blackbird and starling population. They gather in the trees for 'sticky seconds' during each re-seeding effort before landing with a thump on the lawn the moment I've finished! I had to resort to putting a net over the newly seeded parts of the lawn but each time the resultant growth of new grass was short-lived.. the new grass would grow, appear to thrive for a while and then thin out and die off. (suggestions welcomed)

Yesterday, things moved up a gear and got serious. I went out and bought some rolls of turf. I imagine even our starlings would find it hard to abscond with a roll. I was surprised at how easy it was to lay and it all looks pretty impressive. For now...

I'll report back in a while. 

Another rugby fest today.. Wales struggled to find their stride against the big-hitting Fijians last night and that match finished a draw: 16-16. Other matches today: Australia (surprisingly beaten by Munster mid week) are in Italy; Scotland look to be in for a bruising encounter with the Springboks; a rejuvenated England will be looking to build on their performance of last week against the Wallabies when they face another impact team from the South Pacific - Samoa; Ireland take on the All Blacks and finally, France confront the Pumas (Argentina) - their bête noire - the Pumas having won 7 out of the last 10 encounters.

Living in France - yet another difference (part of an occasional series!) In the UK, greeting card shops are omnipresent and there are cards for just about every occasion you can think of - and some would say there are too many. In recent years in the UK, cards started appearing to celebrate occasions that I for one had no idea what they were about. Hannukah, Diwali and others.. Now, we have Happy Winter Holiday.. the mere reporting of which is guaranteed to turn the readership of the Daily Mail apoplectic..!

All that confusion has come to an end here.. Card shops - a High Street staple in the UK - are thin on the ground in France. Christmas cards are rarely if ever sent - in France, it's more customary to send New Year cards instead. And while we're on the subject, finding a birthday card that says more than Bon Anniversaire ain't easy either. 

Thought for the Day: There's been a drastic decline in the world's bee population over the last 5 years and scientists are at a loss to explain it. Increased use of pesticides, mobile phones or mites fron South East Asia are all possible factors. This has the potential to pose more of a threat to the continuance of life on Planet Earth as we know it than the global warming scenario. This is worth reading up on...

As a fully signed-up member of the Cheese Appreciation Society (Gannet Section), I've often thought it would be something to try to have a multi-course meal composed entirely of progressively stronger or more pungent cheeses, with your bread of choice and accompanied by a suitable wine in each case. The first course could be a selection of fairly mild cheeses - for me, I'd pick an unpasteurised ripe Brie de Meaux, to be served by attendants from the Confrérie des Compagnons du Brie de Meaux.. I'd be looking for a cool Bourgueil to drink with this (others may differ!). 
Brie de Meaux
For my main course (assuming we're being health-conscious and only having 3 courses!), I think I'd want a blue cheese such as a nice creamy Roquefort (mixed with a knob of butter).. and perhaps with this I'd be opening a Haut Medoc despite what the recommendations are here..
Assuming I'd make it this far, I'd want to finish face down blowing bubbles in - no prizes for guessing! - a ripe Vacherin Mont d'Or.. and/or a runny Camembert with either (or both!) a Pessac-Léognan or a Saint-Julien in attendance.. A good Madiran would also do the cheese justice.
Mont d'Or
After I'd wiped the crumbs from around my chops, a Greek coffee (Eng trans) would re-invigorate the system before the knock-out blow of a Marc d'Irouleguy - guaranteed to set your eyeballs contra-rotating..

It would then be time for a brisk pull-through of my main arteries with a Dyno-Rod followed by a quick half hour in an oxygen tent..! Then home for tea and medals..

What do you think... brilliant idea or what..?!

Thinking about it, if the idea was carried through among say 6-8 French people around the table, the process of obtaining a consensus for the selection of each cheese with a matching wine would be problematic.. and that's being tactful! Imagine trying to agree one or two cheeses and wines per course that would meet with general approval. Exactly! Notwithstanding that though, I'd still like to try it.. Madame could be persuaded I'm sure..

21st November 2010. In the Autumn rugby internationals, congratulations are due to the Scots, captained by Rory Lawson, for a superb win over the world champions South Africa yesterday. It wasn't the prettiest of games played as it was in sweeping rain which led to handling errors on both sides. But - it was there to be won and fortunately Scotland seized their opportunity. As unexpected as it was welcome, it will give them a mighty boost in confidence. And Rory's grandfather* would have been tickled pink by this performance! Here's tae ye, Scotland! Well done lads!
* The legendary Bill McLaren..
The other results were more predictable: AustraliaEngland, New Zealand & France (mangled English translation here) all won against Italy, Samoa, Ireland and Argentina respectively.

Have you noticed that reporting of Icelandic volcanic eruptions has reduced to zero..? Wonder what's happening up there..? Here's a powerful reminder of Nature at work - you might have to wait for the images to load or, if you're in a hurry, click on the image to see the animation:

Stop Press: Curious story.. We'll be hearing next that his shelves of smoked & strangely mellow duck have been stripped bare!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

97. First signs of Christmas

15th November 2010. Another addition to my "What makes life worth living" list..
It was a beautiful sunny morning today so I walked the pooch down into town and along the river bank only to find the Christmas lights being erected.. and all the chalets in front of the Hotel de Ville are in place ready for the Christmas market.. Christmas has come up quickly this year..

Madame has said she will make a Christmas pudding this year. I must be honest, she made one once in England and it was right up there with one of my dear old Mum's (the benchmark).. A good Christmas pud is the true taste of Christmas to your correspondent. When I was a kid, my father would drench the steaming pudding with whisky or brandy which he'd then try to ignite - with varying degrees of success. Not so long ago I read that the thing to do is to pre-heat the spirits before pouring over the pudding.. and then all it takes is one match to set the whole thing alight.. This works spectacularly well!

The other day we booked a holiday in Andalusia for next Spring - something to take our minds off the wet weather we're currently stuck with..
18th November 2010. Meanwhile,  life goes on - despite the frequent rain showers that have been sweeping in from the Bay of Biscay for the last week. Normalement there's something that catches my eye every day but it's rare that I have a camera to hand. The other day was an exception however when I spotted this sign on a gate..

For all you Francophiles out there, you'll be pleased to hear that London now has its very own French radio station.. I know it's been tried before but that was during the war and it wasn't for purposes of entertainment. It's worth looking at the link above - not least so that you may wince at the bluntness of some of the questions (how former President Giscard d'Estaing retained his composure I'll never know).

No, this new French radio in London is completely different and long overdue. I'd like to think that it might help to dispel the fog that traditionally obscures the view of the opposite side of the Channel - but I'm not holding my breath! 

Friday, 12 November 2010

96. Distant snow

11th November 2010. Now that the monsoon of the last 3-4 days appears to have blown itself out, we decided to nip across the border to Irun this morning for some shopping.. On the return journey, I was looking across at the Pyrenees and through a gap in the nearest hills I could see through to some more distant ones. To my surprise, the sun was shining like a spotlight through a break in the cloud onto a snow-covered peak..   

Question du Jour: What's Velcro® known as in French..? (Answer at foot of post) (and no - it's not Velcreau..!)

Cheese - good or bad for you? An article in the New York Times sparked off this report from a US TV channel that attempts to link excessive cheese consumption with obesity and to score a political point in so doing. According to these figures (below), Greece is the top of the heap with France second. Yet strangely enough, contrary to the conclusion that might be drawn from the US report, neither Greece nor France are awash with wobbling blimps. In fact, it's a very rare event to see anyone overweight - let alone obese - waddling through the streets here in France. And - this will get me into trouble but it's true - those I have seen have usually had English accents.
I think obesity is less to do with 'excessive' cheese consumption and everything to do with a sedentary 'couch-potato' lifestyle, over-sized portions, snacking between meals and an excessive intake of processed foods high in additives such as sugars and salt - but then I'm not a doctor.

And so to Woody Allen - here he is with his thoughts on what makes life worth living (from "Manhattan")..
I like the moment in this scene (at 02:23) when the penny finally drops with him.. (been there..)

What would be on your list? Your answers welcomed.

12th November 2010. I found this clip on YouTube of the sea at Biarritz today..
13th November 2010. Last Saturday morning, the river was the lowest I've ever seen it and we had rain showers - just to stop us getting bored..! I usually row on Saturday mornings and Tuesday & Thursday evenings. Last Tuesday, the Pays Basque was being lashed by continuous rain and Thursday was a national holiday (Armistice Day) so today was my first outing for a week. It was the opposite of last Saturday.. it was warm - I'm guessing 16°C - under a burning blue cloudless sky, the river was full to the brim and static - it must have been high tide. We did 13km in a coxless quad sculler. (running total = 321km)

To St Jean de Luz this afternoon - the car was registering 23.5°C (74°F) and it was like a summer's day down there - people on the beach, swimmers, surfers, people messing about in boats, queues for ice creams (!)..

I've been thinking about the Woody Allen question and one item that would definitely make my list of things that make life worth living (apart from my dearly beloved, natch!) is a Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese.. Known as Vacherin Mont d'Or in Switzerland or Mont d'Or in France, it's a seasonal cheese normally only available in the winter months.
A Mont d'Or cheese (the French version)
Baked Vacherin
There are also many recipes for baked Vacherin (I've not tried it baked).. and this one looks interesting.. What to drink with it..? This cheese can take a big wine and, personally, I'd earmark my best bottle of red for this cheese. (Something like a Pessac-Léognan or a Saint-Julien (this is an affordable one - but it would benefit from being laid down for a few years), or, if your taste leans more towards the Rhônes, a Gigondas or a Côte Rôtie) (It's once a year so don't worry about the price - you're a long time dead..) If Madame asks you what you'd like for Christmas, now you know! That is - if you haven't got one of these handy doo-hickeys on the right!

Highlight of the weekend? No question.. England vs Australia at Twickenham..
What a try by Ashton and what a terrific team performance! Roll on the Six Nations..

Answer: Scratch.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

95. T'was a dark and stormy night..

9th November 2010. It's been wet & windy for the last few days - and according to the forecast we're due more of the same today and tomorrow.

There was a tragic accident at St Jean de Luz on Sunday - a young kite surfer was lifted up and carried away off the beach by an exceptionally strong gust of wind up to the top of a 7 storey apartment block from where he fell to his death. 

I was just flicking through YouTube looking for clips of storms at St Jean de Luz when I came across this one.. It's not St Jean de Luz though. Life has clearly lost its thrill for these two.. (ignore the first 28 seconds) 
The storms at Biarritz were covered on TF1 at lunchtime today:
Well, after that review of a damp few days down here in the Pays Basque, what else could I offer you but:
There are a few places I mean to visit in the coming months: the fromagerie Iraty at Mendive, the écomusée de Marquèze at Sabres and the chocolaterie Puyodebat at Cambo.

Regular readers (you can be helped..) will have guessed by now that I'm a Woody Allen fan. Here's one of the more memorable scenes from "Manhattan" - in less than a minute he wraps up the key elements in his personality: his eternal romanticism, his love of New York and the great American standards - in this case, the lush strings of the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta with George Gershwin's 1926 classic "Someone to watch over me":
I must be getting old.. I find I can listen to Ol' Blue Eyes nowadays without wanting to reach for the 'off' button.. which is something of a 'first' for me..
Also - by the standards of any era - Ava Gardner was/is stunningly beautiful. 
Note to self: why has it taken me so long to realise this?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

94. Coast walks

3rd November 2010. It's hard to believe that, as we speak, kids in the UK are putting together small arsenals of fireworks and constructing bonfires ready for the big night on Friday evening - November 5th. I've got the window wide open as I type this and the sun's shining..

This picture shows just how close Biarritz's Grande Plage is to the centre of town. There was a Latin American festival in Biarritz a week or so ago and the Casino was taken over by people selling brightly coloured ponchos, CDs of  flute music, South American chocolate, honey, pots, furniture and all kinds of exotic products.. (in other words, objects that already have one foot in the garage!)

This compelling recording by Incantation from 1982 (already!) was probably the first time that South American music found space for itself in the cultural mainstream:
The other day we went for a blowy walk along the Sentier Littoral - or coastal footpath.
We walked from Bidart to the former whaling village of Guéthary & back - the walk took us along the cliff tops before descending to beach level.
There was a lively sea running with great rollers rearing up in a foamy mass on an offshore reef before surging in to pound the shoreline.. Some of the large houses built on the cliffs were magnificent - but I'm not sure I'd feel 100% secure inside one of them with a strong westerly gale off the Bay of Biscay gusting against those overhanging Basque roofs.
Looking across at Spain from Bidart (St Jean de Luz is off to the left)
6th November 2010. A misty autumnal morning sortie out on a very low river today.. our blades struck bottom several times - 13km (running total = 308km) - and as it was the first Saturday of the month, we had a drink afterwards. Slightly curious choice though - Scotch on ze rocks, or wiz Coca or Tonic, Ricard or port. Not a cold beer in sight! 
If you've ever had a summertime drive down to the south west of France from the Channel ports and listened to French radio on the way down, then - before the gathering gloom of an English winter overwrites all those happy memories - here's something to remind you of those long golden days in the sun. It's Etienne Daho with his classic summer hit 'Duel au Soleil' from 1985 that was the perfect accompaniment to the long drive south:
I know I often drone on & on about Madiran wine.. well, here we go again! This is Château Peyros (English version of the same link) - we were offered this at a friend's house.. Highly recommended.

It's worth digging around your local wine merchant to find a bottle or two of Madiran - it is 'out there'. The one you won't find is Irouleguy.. unless you are lucky enough to live near Guildford or Warminster!

Both of these wines really open up if they are served at room temperature - remembering, of course, that the ambient temperature in SW France is a notch or three above that in the UK. In England I used to park mine in the airing cupboard for a few hours.