Friday, 28 October 2011

168. Mussels in Brussels..

26th October 2011. Back home late on Monday night after a long weekend away in Belgium for the Comète Line Reunion. If the activities of the WWII Comète Line are new to you, here's an excellent intro. We'd decided to drive up to Belgium and it took us ~11 hours to do the 1100km. The plan was to stay two nights with B and then two nights with A (B's brother) and L-M.

Although our GPS coverage shuts down at the frontiers of Gaul - it's a case of Here be dragons beyond that - we somehow managed to find B's house which was situated in a winding maze of unmarked country lanes in farming country about 40 minutes south of Brussels. A hearty portion of steak/frites eased down with a couple of glasses of red in a nearby village restored the inner man and we were ready for bed.  

We had a good night's coma and the next morning we decided to do some tidying up of B's garden. Despite it being much colder than we're used to - the car was covered in frost - after that long drive north it was good to be out in the bright sunshine under a blue sky. We collected fallen branches and a few old logs and it wasn't long before there was the crackle of burning wood as the flames took hold (a 1 match job!) and soon a healthy column of blue smoke was rising up in the crisp morning air. After lunch, B took us for a drive around the tangle of lanes and showed us some local landmarks. The evening saw us in Brussels where we met Jeanine de Greef (daughter of Elvire aka "Tante Go"- the legendary head of Comète's operations in south west France) together with C and A (A is the daughter of Freddy de Greef - Elvire's brother). Don't worry about all the names - there won't be a test! We enjoyed mussels and frites at that grand old Bruxelloise institution - Chez Léon. This deserves a place on anyone's list of top 50 places to eat before you die..
We were up early on Saturday morning and after a quick breakfast we were back on the road to Brussels again where we would join up with everyone. I was wearing a tie for the first time in a loong time and once again my trusty diagram saved the day! We climbed aboard our coach for a tour of sites of special relevance to the Comète Line. We drove past the Swedish Canteen - a front for the de facto centre of Comète operations in wartime Brussels - stopping at the plaque honouring Jean Greindl aka 'Nemo' (who ran the Brussels operation for 6 months before being arrested in February 1943) before heading out to the De Jongh family home in Schaerbeek to lay some flowers. We then drove on to the Enclos des Fusillés where 11 members of Comète were shot on 20th October 1943. (Edith Cavell - Andrée de Jongh's inspiration - was shot here during the Great War) It still retains its dank, sombre and poignant atmosphere - not somewhere that you'd choose to spend your last moments on earth.

After this we travelled a bit further to the Monument of the Women deported to Ravensbrück at Woluwé St Lambert where flowers were laid by 'Nadine' (herself a survivor of Ravensbrück) and 'Monique'.
Everyone was very moved by this visit and it remains a fitting memorial to Man's inhumanity to Man.

It was here that I became aware of Henriette 'Monique' Hanotte. She'd been a guide for Comète, passing evaders across the Franco-Belge frontier until she was 'burnt' - ie, her identity compromised. At this point, she made the long journey with Comète down to south west France and eventually landed back in England where she was trained as an SOE agent. Here's a film that describes the Special Operations Executive (SOE) that was initiated by Churchill after the fall of France. 

This training would have included hand-to-hand combat, proficiency with small arms, sabotage, demolition, silent killing, parachuting and a host of other skills that aren't very marketable in today's world - at least in the world that most of us live in.. 

Today she looks like everyone's favourite grandmother - but when she spoke passionately about those wartime days, there was no mistaking the set of her jaw and the fire in her eyes. I'd not met her before but the old determination that drove her is clearly still there - a wonderful brave lady.

If you wish to know more about the WWII escape lines, "Home Run" by John Nichol & Tony Rennell is highly recommended. (a used copy from here is a wallet-busting £0.01p! It's a gripping read..)

After a good lunch, we went to a cinema for a private showing of "The Last Passage" - more here. We had dinner at the Grand Café before leaving B to spend 2 nights with A and L-M.   Due to a motorway bridge being removed, our route out of Brussels was severely congested and so it was late by the time we arrived at A & L-M's house - but not too late for a very welcome wee dram! We slept well that night - all this activity was tiring..
Sunday morning saw us en route for the colossal brick-built Basilica at Koekelberg (above) - the largest Art Deco building in the world, for a tri-lingual Sunday Mass (Flemish, French, English) which was to be followed by homage to those of Comète by the dedicated stained glass window and the RAF Chapel. Here's a remarkable short clip of it that uses some clever tricks (I think zooming out as the camera approaches) to produce an almost 3D effect..

After this, we set off for the Maison de Ailes (below left) where we had a splendid lunch complete with a piper! The pipes have the ability to set the emotions churning and this was especially true for the small Scottish contingent. We shared a table with W and K, a charming couple who'd travelled all the way from California. I met them during the 2010 Comète walk in the Pyrenees and it was good to see them again. They weren't the furthest travelled though.. M, an Australian lady, had come all the way from Queensland for this weekend. The Comète fraternity has this effect on people.
Het Huis der Vleugels /
La Maison des Ailes

Finally, it was time to bid farewell to all our friends and head back to A's house. All too soon though, the next morning we were back on the road to the south west. We set off on Monday morning at 9.30 and after a long wet drive we finally arrived back home in the Pays Basque at 10pm. Phew...!

28th October 2011. We spent a warm afternoon in St Jean de Luz - there were quite a few people on the beach and even some still swimming. It may have been cold up in Belgium but our hosts' welcome couldn't have been warmer. A most memorable few days.

29th October 2011. Down to the river this morning for the first time in several weeks - I'm afraid to say the Rugby World Cup had taken priority with the big matches being shown here live on Saturday mornings. There was a very strong current running downstream and it made for slow progress up the river. Despite that, we rowed almost as far as Villefranque in a mixed VIII sculler. Once we'd turned around though, our pace quickened and we sped down river. We did 18km and I have to admit that at the moment I can feel every one of them!

There's a big match in Bayonne today and there are plenty of red & yellow clad Perpignan supporters in evidence. I wondered if Mike Phillips (the Welsh scrum half) - the latest addition to Bayonne's line-up - would be playing or if he's still on post-RWC wind-down. He's an intelligent, quick-witted scrum half with real physical presence - he's 6'3" (1.90m) - and very mobile. His form for Wales augurs well for Bayonne this season.

Another new player and one just as talented is the French international full back Cédric Heymans.. Like Mike, a hard running player, he's seldom had a game for Les Bleus where he failed to make an impression. Both he and Mike bring some much-needed international class to Aviron Bayonnais.. who are currently lying 10th in the Top 14. By contrast, our nearest & dearest neighbours Biarritz Olympique have had a cracking start to the season - storming straight to the bottom of the French Top 14! (equivalent to the Aviva Premiership in England) - sorry - couldn't resist that one..!

30th October 2011. The steady march of the season into autumn continues.. Today, as I bumbled into Bayonne with the dog for a baguette, I noticed that the small locomotive - similar to this (left) - that sells hot chestnuts is in position. The smell of hot roasting chestnuts is one the distinctive smells of autumn & winter here. Also, the pavements were carpeted with an increasing number of purply-red-yellow leaves. The tree-lined Allée Paulmy (a major boulevard in the centre of town) looked very autumnal with its foliage displaying well. The usual suspects were out and about too. The lady who optimistically twirls her scarf for a few centimes - a minimalistic act I've commented on previously - was in position but there didn't seem to be much action heading her way.

The weather is still being kind to us - I'm writing this with the study windows wide open. There was a report on the lunchtime news about an unseasonably early dump of snow on the US East Coast.. so if you're reading this in North America - look away now! Here, the forecast for tomorrow is 23C (73F).  

Ramparts, Bayonne
31st October 2011. It was so warm today at lunchtime we had lunch on the terrace. The shade temperature was 20C but it was much warmer in the sun. That will probably be the last time this year that we sit outside. The cloudless sky was criss-crossed with high level contrails streaking silently across the Bay of Biscay - bringing back all those who'd squeezed in one last trip south for the sunshine. I did my bit for the Greek economy by finishing up with a Greek coffee (I like mine metrios) and a cigarillo (yes I know!).. Taking the dog out afterwards for his daily leg stretch, the garden walls were alive with the sound of scurrying feet as lizards basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine darted for cover as I walked by. I felt over-dressed as I walked the pooch around Vauban's ramparts - the sun was hot on my back. Still largely cloudless at 5.30pm but the forecast is for this fine weather to break tomorrow. Pity!

2nd November 2011. Incidentally, I've just noticed that Alain Brumont, the celebrated viticulteur who produces that marvellous Madiran - Chateau Bouscassé - is having an Open Day over the weekend of 19-20 November. Remember all those articles about the health benefits of Madiran red wine? Earlier in the year, when we were staying in the high Pyrenees for a few days, we were offered a bottle of Chateau Bouscassé (Madiran).. and I was bowled over by its quality. It was right up there with the best Bordeaux I've ever tasted. Seriously. Well worth seeking out a bottle to try - but don't just take my word for it - take a look at this link and scroll down to the paragraph in red.. More glowing reviews here. It's always reassuring to find out that your own experience matches the views of the experts. Here's the Great Man himself:

And, for interest, here are his 11 Commandments:

I. Strong plantation density: 7500 vines/hectare. It is well known that the closer the vines are to each other, the more likely we will be prone to a Bonsai effect resulting in smaller bunches.

II. Row orientated at 1500 Hours allowing the sunrays to reach both sides of the rows morning and afternoons. A bunch of grapes that is 100% in contact with the sun will develop a better quality. They should transpire 100 to 300 times more than a bunch protected by its leaves. At 1500 hours, the sun is at its peak and vertical to the leaf this lets the grapes cool for 1 hour, which keeps them from burning.

III. Bud Selection: The most hardy and weakest are excluded during bud bursting. Without selection, there could be an interval in maturity between hardier and weaker vine-shoots from one grape to the other, ranging from one hour to several days.

IV. Selecting 5 to 6 bunches per vine and one bunch per vine-shoot (one vine-shoot can produce up to 2 to 2 1/2 bunches).

V. Thinning out the leaves systematically 3 times:

- June: thinning out East side

- July: thinning out West side

- August: remove 10 cm above the grapes on both sides.

VI. The two first thinning outs let the grapes get used to the hardship of the sun, the last thinning-out in August slightly reduces the alcohol level by reducing the photosynthesis and the sugar production.

VII. Calibration of the grapes in 3 checks.

During the last check, all the bunches must be shaped to obtain the same weight.

VIII. The bunches are checked one by one three weeks prior to harvest to make sure that none of the grapes are damaged or late (maturity).

In total, 9 to 10 supplementary checks are made throughout the whole vineyard.

IX. Control: Each row is marked by the person in charge (28 to 30 persons employed in the vines from April to September). Points are given to each row. Each terroir has a pre-determined grape yield.

X. No grape yield per hectare. This notion applied by the INAO and various control organisations is, according to Alain Brumont totally outdated and is of no subsequence. Indeed, with a 50 hl/ha yield, we may find bunches of 1 kg or 25 bunches depending on density. At Brumont, we prefer talking in grams per bunch (120 to 300 g) and in kilos per vine per terroir.

XI. Hand harvested in crates of one layer for the high quality vintages.

Simple isn't it!

3rd November 2011. A few months ago I mentioned Mandion, the temple to the art of the Patissier that's a few minutes away in Anglet. In fact, it's somewhere we rarely go on foot and I noticed as we passed by the other day in the car that the famous shop front now sports the name of Henriet, a well known patissier from Biarritz.

With Christmas coming up over the horizon (who said that!), if you fancy trying something different this year, this is what the French will be tucking into - la bûche au chocolat.. here's the chief pastry chef from Mandion (no expense spared on this blog!) to show you how to make the perfect bûche au chocolat. This will blow the rust off that French you haven't spoken in years! No matter, he's listed the ingredients for you and a careful watch of the video should fill in all the gaps.
Personally, I  find these things a bit sickly sweet.. but if you have never tried one before, here's your chance. The chef makes it all look suspiciously easy.

Having made the mistake of mentioning Christmas about 6 weeks too early, I began thinking about wine. I must see if I can find somewhere that stocks Château Bouscassé..


John said...

Hi Geoff

Good to meet you again in Brussels and to read the blog.

Regards to you and Madame Piperade !


Pipérade said...

I think that's you in one of the pics above John.. (at the Ravensbrück Memorial)
Good to meet you again too! There's never enough time to talk to everyone though.

GFH said...

Piperade - Glad to see you back at the blog. The "report" of snow on the East coast of the US last Saturday was true. We only got 4-6 inches but mid New Jersey got 19 inches. An early winter and the leaves not even off the trees yet. I have been envious of the nice weather in your region. Please order up some nice weather in Bayonne for the first two weeks of December as we will be coming to visit our daughter then. - GFH

Pipérade said...

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the mildness of the Pays Basque winter when you arrive here G. Don't forget to pack an umbrella though!
Places to visit? There's so much to see in the French Basque country but I'd try and find time to fit in a visit to San Sebastian across the border in Spain.
Eating out? If you like seafood (as fresh as can be) and your budget can stand a major torpedoing - then it can only be "Chez Pantxua" at Socoa - just across the bay from St Jean de Luz.