Saturday, 29 January 2011

114. My Rs

26th January 2011. In any discussion about the pros and cons of a permanent move to France, it generally doesn't take long before the knotty subject of actually speaking French raises its head. If the new arrival is serious about integrating with the local community, then it's a given that he or she must do so in the language of Molière. One of the difficulties is that while grammar, vocabulary, verbs (& tenses thereof) can all be learnt from a book, French pronunciation is a totally different matter - and it's made more complicated by the fact that we Angliche (or perhaps it's just me!) tend to continue to sound individual letters more or less exactly as they are spoken in English.

Don't believe me..? Well, the acid test for me is to try pronouncing any French word containing an 'r'. We pronounce 'r' in English either as "aah" or as a soft "ruh" - whereas in French it's pronounced as "airrr" with the 'r' an almost trilled rattly sound in the throat (or, as it says here, a voiced uvular fricative sound). The problem for us Rosbifs is that that sound doesn't exist in English. If I concentrate hard, I can manage it but slipping that - alien to me - sound into a long sentence invariably catches me out. There are a couple of words that always cause me grief: "serrurier" (locksmith) and another is the "RER" - the fast Metro in Paris.

I know I've quoted P. G. Wodehouse's observation on this before but he understood the problem perfectly: 
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
29th January 2011. Putting all thoughts of French pronunciation on the back burner for now, here's a real travel bargain from SNCF - and I quote:

Dès le 24 janvier, avec Lunéa, profitez de l’Hiver à prix Fou, à partir de 19€ (1) en couchette 2nde classe pour tous vos voyages en France!


Prem's price Lunéa tax (including 3€ online reduction), from per person for a one-way 2nd class sleeper with Lunéa on a selection of destinations and the availability of seats at this fare. Tickets are on sale from January 24 to February 14, 2011, for travel between January 27 and April 6, 2011. Tickets are non-exchangeable, non refundable, on sale until 3 days before train departure. Online payment required with ticket to print yourself, send free ticket home, withdrawal self-service kiosk in French train stations, or SNCF Rail Europe (extra 10€ per folder). Offer not valid with any other promotion or discount rate station.

"Wot's that all abaht?" I hear you say.. In a nutshell: cheap overnight sleeper tickets from 19€ (couchette) on sale from 24th January 2011 to 14th February 2011 for all trips from 27th Jan '11 to 6 Apr '11. All the details here..

I'd suggest you book your ticket to the Pays Basque and start brushing up your pronunciation right now!
29th January 2011. Meanwhile, out on the river on another cold morning, this time in an VIII sculler - up to the turnaround and back, only stopping for the turn. (Phew!) 14km (Running total: 406km)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

113. St Jean de Luz on film..

25th January 2011. If a picture's worth a thousand words, then what d'you suppose is the going rate for a short film..? I've decided to give my keyboard a rest for this post and instead show you activities in and around the jewel in the crown of the Pays Basque - St Jean de Luz.. You'll see traînières racing in the bay of St Jean; the Fête of the Rouge et Noir (when everyone wears black & red) and the Rue de la République - with all its restaurants - becomes alive with travelling bands; the mass fandango dancing in the Place Louis Quatorze, the Fête du Thon (Tuna Festival); the pelote players and the bulls stuffed with fireworks (crazy!):
This clip (below) was from the Fête de St Jean de Luz (when many are in red & black)... at 4:03 they start singing Hegoak - the Basque anthem which is sung on both sides of the border: It's clear that an overwhelming majority of the people take great pride in Basque cultural events and participation is widespread among ages in the community.

Now is it me - or does this not look like a lot of fun..?
A cultural interlude now - Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure - across the harbour from St Jean de Luz - in the stone house just left of centre:

 Some more culture of the musical variety:
Here are some students and concerts from the Maurice Ravel Academy:
The huge waves from the Belharra Reef (mentioned before here) are next - truly gigantic and hard to believe but they're here.. just a few kilometers south of St Jean de Luz:

The fastest of all the ball games played in the Pays Basque is Pelote Basque. All the rules and variations are spelled out here.. When played with the chistera, the ball has been measured at speeds of 250-300 kph (155-185mph), which makes it the fastest bat and ball sport in the world.

Paddling one of these Polynesian pirogues in the surf looks like it could be fun!

Monday, 24 January 2011

112. A word from your faded correspondent

24th January 2011. Ac-tor Simon Williams, writing in the Delhi Telegraph over the weekend about Biarritz, talks of its faded gentillity.. Just as it's "known" that Venice smells*, so it seems to be received wisdom among travel writers that poor old Biarritz is akin to an old lady living on her memories.. a little down at heel, some flaky paint here and there, roots showing and in need of a discreet makeover. Nothing could be further from the truth than this.

* There's absolutely no truth in the oft-reported 'fact' that Venice smells..

OK, like all ladies d'un certain âge, she has had a past.. but the Biarritz I know is sparklingly clean, bright and has s-t-y-l-e in spades. "Faded gentillity..?" Not even close. I'd take the Grand Old Lady of the Pays Basque any day in preference to some soulless, style-free, modern high rise resort (the holiday equivalent of a blonde bimbo). If bimbo is what you want - fine - but not for me.
Hotel du Palais (right)
Simon also waxes lyrical about the Hotel du Palais (no surprises there; mentioned here & here), the Café Jean (we prefer the Bar Jean previously highlighted here & here in these pages) and finally he recommends a visit to Cazenave in Bayonne (yet another favourite of ours). 
I can't fault his choices at all! (he must have read this blog!)

Here's a view of Biarritz through Spanish eyes..
However, I would take issue with his fatuous claim that "Biarritz is a bit like Cornwall in the summer, only warmer.." That statement could only be true if you imagine that Hull resembles San Francisco - because they both have suspension bridges..!

He was going so well until then too! Apart from that, Simon, a good column..!

So... marks out of ten? Let's be kind:

"Royaume Uni.. neuf points!" 

A quick dose of "Father Ted" is called for..

Saturday, 22 January 2011

111. La France profonde

22nd January 2011. Very cold out on the river this morning in a double sculler with a very strong downstream current.. the temperature must have been hovering around freezing. I came back with hands like a bunch of bananas! We did 10km and that was enough to be honest. (Running total 392km) Note to self: don't forget the gloves next time!

In writing this blog I've made the odd reference here and there to La France profonde (deep France). I think it's worth explaining a little more about this idea before it slowly disappears, submerged by the relentless tide of progress from modern Europe. I exchanged a flurry of emails yesterday with C from Tiens, the new start-up online magazine about SW France. I soon recognised that she and her husband P are a couple of kindred spirits in that what attracts us to this blessèd corner of France is not the glitz of the coast or the bright lights of the ski slopes but rather the timeless appeal of la France profonde

What is la France profonde I hear you ask..? It's difficult to pin down exactly but you'll know it when you see it. It's that moment that stops you in your tracks when you realise that you're seeing something that's been done the same way for generations and that the chances of seeing it anywhere else in western Europe are pretty slim. You could say it was contact with the real France. Or maybe it's the France of our imagination - as we'd like it all to be without it being a pastiche of the France of Robert Doisneau. Certainly in England, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater a very long time ago and a kind of mindless banalisation of life has the country in its thrall. There are two very different connotations to being described as a peasant depending upon which country you are in - France or the UK.

Perhaps a few examples of la France profonde. During a long-ago visit to France (~1970) I stopped for petrol at midday in a sleepy little village in the department of the Ardèche.. I stepped out of the car into a wall of heat, and all was silence apart from the chirruping of the cicadas. An old lady well into her 80s appeared and she proceeded to untangle a strange (to my eyes) contraption which was the petrol pump. It was old and tall with a graduated glass cylinder sitting atop it.  She started pumping a long handle and petrol appeared in the cylinder and began rising up it. When the level reached 10 litres, she inserted a long rubber hose into my petrol tank, turned a tap, and  petrol flowed, as if by magic, into my car. Simple, bomb-proof and effective. While she repeated this process enough times to fill my tank, we had a chat about where I was from etc and in the course of this she revealed that she'd never seen the sea and, what's more, she'd never left her department! That was my first encounter with la France profonde.

Another was the time when Madame and I were en route to the Pays Basque one summer and somewhere in the region around Poitiers we pulled off the autoroute for lunch. We found a small village where there was just the one restaurant and we were the first customers. Sitting down, we chose the 3 course set lunch menu which was ~£11 or so. Things started happening in that wonderfully pre-ordained way that lets you know you are back in France. Everything was comme il faut (as it should be). A generous serving of rabbit with prunes in a rich red wine sauce (I remember it well!) and a couple of glasses of red put smiles on our faces again. While we were sitting there, two young lads in their early teens came in and sat at a nearby table. It transpired that one was the waiter's son. The two of them sat there and ordered their 3 course lunch from the main menu - no sausage, beans and chips from the children's menu for them or whinging with curled up lips that they didn't like this or that.. No, they just sat there and worked their way  through all 3 courses. I remember thinking that there are two Frenchmen in the making there.

Then there was the flyer for the Bingo night I read at the garage while waiting for the car to get through its Contrôle Technique (MOT for British readers).. what caught my eye and made me smile was the second prize: half a pig!

Le porc Pie Noir du Pays Basque
This (left) is the Iberian pig that's to be found in the Pyrenees and northern Spain. Very hardy, somewhat picky about his food, the pig is remarkably well adapted to an outdoor life in the mountains. Its lean meat is a feature of the celebrated Basque ham from the valley of Les Aldudes. Since 1991, a regional chain was established with a quality approach to obtain an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

M and Mme D in the gîte also contributed with their very traditional custom of keeping a couple of pigs for fattening up on corn and killing them in the winter months. The annual slaughtering and butchering is an occasion for friends and neighbours to pitch in and help and the whole process of converting a large 200+kg porker into sausages, hams, joints, trotters, fillets, boudins noirs (black pudding) takes around three days. If you have no idea what a 200kg pig looks like, this picture (right) will give you an idea!

Madame's Tante S and her (now late) husband live in the Jura (close to the Swiss border) and it was their 50th wedding anniversary one summer in the mid 90s. They'd decided to have a celebratory dinner and had invited a representative from each part of the extended family (to keep the numbers down to a manageable level) and so we came to be invited. We'd planned our annual visit to the Pays Basque such that at the end of it we could drive up & across to the Jura to arrive in time..

We wanted to avoid the boredom of the autoroutes so we thought we'd simply "straight-line it" across France - going by the Departmentale roads - thus seeing a bit more of the country. After driving all day on lonely roads through mountains, forests and villages we stopped overnight at a village called Bourganeuf  (between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand) which is as near as dammit in the centre of France. We quickly dropped our bags in a 2* "Logis" hotel in the centre and then went out for a swift leg stretch before dinner. 

We returned to the hotel and went into the cosy and heavily beamed dining room. Looking around, it was clear that this was la France profonde. After browsing the menu for a few minutes I realised that this was somewhere that took its food very seriously indeed. All the classic dishes were there. Madame often says that food is the second religion in France but I'd go further and say it's the first - as more people go to restaurants than go to church. Looking through the wine list I couldn't believe what I was seeing - most of the wine was priced at somewhere between £200 and £800 a bottle.. There were some fabled wines there that I'd only read about - Château Palmer, Château Gruaud-Larose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Yquem - and this in a un cheval village in the middle of nowhere.. 

Here's a film that captures something of la France profonde:
What does la France profonde mean to you..? Don't be shy - send a comment..!

The circus is in town.. a vast red and white tent, surrounded by a village of colourful caravans, trailers and bright lights, the Cirque Amar has suddenly materialised between the old ramparts and the Avenue des Allées Paulmy. 

I've always been a wee bit intrigued by the roaming life of circus people. They inhabit a slightly blurred and mysterious part of the spectrum - lying somewhere between those of us who live more or less conventionally in houses or flats, and those of a gypsy or nomadic persuasion - from respectable baby boomer retirees with their Camper Vans, through plush caravans towed by slightly dodgy Mercedes vans, to the real thing: gypsies in horse drawn caravans who cook on open fires and hobble their horses on grazing land.. I don't understand how these last two groups survive in the increasingly joined-up world of today. Think car insurance, taxes, health issues, an address for mail - but maybe they don't bother with any of this.    

24th January 2011. I read today of the passing of Major Richard Winters retd.. a truly great American hero.  RIP Sir. 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

110. Anyone for logs..?

20th January 2011. Went out on the river in a coxless quad sculler this evening - it was very fresh. (weather forecaster-speak for cold..) Did 10km. (Running total: 382km)

Two years ago, over the night of 24th January, Tempete Klaus dealt a devastating blow to the forests of Les Landes in SW France, between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Winds gusting up to 175kph (110mph) stormed out of the Bay of Biscay and rampaged acoss the coastal forest, knocking down hundreds of thousands of trees and power lines, blocking roads and isolating whole communities.

There was a piece on the TF1 news this evening about the enormous stockpiles of logs that were created during the massive clean-up operation.
Each time I've driven by these stockpiles en route north to Bordeaux, they were being continuously sprayed with water to stop them drying out prematurely and splitting in the intense summer heat. In the past I've googled without success to try and find a link to them but tonight's story on TF1 gave the name of the stockpile as "L’aire de stockage de Solférino". Apparently Solférino holds 700,000 tons of wood. The one below is just one of what looks like about 5-6 similar huge piles.

There's been a permanent wall of logs stacked along the dockside in Bayonne ever since, clearly visible from across the Adour, and they're being continuously loaded onto ships for export but the stacks of logs seem never to diminish in size.

The news story featured a gentleman who owned some 300-odd hectares of forest and he said that the price of his wood had dropped from 30€/cubic metre to 4€..

21st January 2011. Tiens is a bright new venture that's just been started by Perry & Caroline - an Anglo-Dutch couple living in the Hautes-Pyrénées an hour or two to the east of here. Tiens is an online magazine - with sound and images - about life in all its forms in South West France. Give it a click - I defy you not to be charmed by it. 

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

109. Rant du Jour: Booking an iDTGV ticket - aaagghh!

19th January 2011. In April, we're off to Andalusia with Madame's former colleagues from her old school. The trip starts from Paris and there was no way that we could easily arrange to join them in Spain by independent means. We decided that we'd travel up to Paris instead and meet up with everyone there. After looking at the options - drive, fly or train - we settled on the train. Last night we booked the trip online.. SNCF has launched an online-only TGV booking service known as iDTGV. I wish I'd read this link before we booked as I quote:
Wagons (they mean carriages - I hope!) are separated into two zones: iDZen for customers wishing a quiet trip, where mobile phones and loud conversations are banned, and iDZap for customers looking for entertainment, where more noise is tolerated and games, shows, etc are sometimes given.
I've just checked our tickets and we're booked into an iDZap zone for the Bayonne-Paris outbound leg... aagghh! 

I don't normally criticise web sites here but - a cautionary warning - for poor functionality, user unfriendliness and sheer uselessness, the iDTGV site has to be one of the worst e-commerce sites I've ever used.

After typing in our responses to the standard questions such as - from/to, date & time of travel, no. of passengers, age etc.., it also asked if we were flexible on dates. I replied no. After hitting 'Continue', it provided a range of suitable train times and prices. Despite saying that I wasn't flexible on dates, it provided a bracket of 3 days around the date I'd requested. However, no date appeared next to any offered service except a small graphic next to some of the suggested times that said J-1 or J+1. After a while, I realised that this referred to the day prior to or the day following the day we actually wanted (Jour minus 1 - Jour plus 1). Why not just show the date? (remember the KISS principle..? Keep It Simple, Stupid..)

After changing our selections a few times, we decided on our choice of trains. The site then told us we'd booked 4 duplicate journeys.. I deleted everything and started again. Finally, after allowing me to select a valid outward and return journey - which, I have to say, was astonishingly cheap* (especially when compared to the UK) - I entered my credit card details and pressed 'continue'.. At this point a window popped up that said something like "for technical reasons we cannot continue this transaction and you should contact an online customer help service".. which we did. This then promptly failed. We were left tearing our hair out! An online booking that turns pear-shaped on you in mid-transaction (after you think you've paid as well) is so frustrating because you can't lean across the counter and grab someone (the person who wrote the software preferably) by the throat.. as maybe you'd like to do sometimes in real life! 
I shut down my PC and we jumped in the car to drive the 5 minutes to Bayonne SNCF station to try our luck with the ticket office there. Luckily it was still open and we ran in wild-eyed, foaming at the mouth (well, almost!) and asked the question - are we booked on the train that we'd just paid for or not? The girl replied that she couldn't help us with iDTGV enquiries as it's an online service only - yet another knuckle clenching moment! We said OK - can you quote us the standard SNCF price for the trip Bayonne/Paris & return for the dates in question..? She came back with a figure that was twice the price as she wasn't allowed to access iDTGV. I can recognise when I'm defeated as much as the next man.

We returned home and I fired up my PC again.. Finally, we were able to make the reservation we wanted and the system accepted it. Then we had to print off the tickets.. That episode triggered another 15 minutes of head-scratching until I figured out the obscure method of doing so. How difficult can it be to design a web site that's intuitive and works..?

Looking at the iDTGV web site again in the cold light of day, I can see there is a small French flag graphic with a stylised arrow next to it - and yes, that leads to other languages.. But why not display the range of flags to start with..? (which is the standard convention) This site truly needs re-working from top to bottom. It is a dismal front door to what is undeniably a great low-cost TGV service..
Now breathe deeply and relax..
* For 2 return TGV tickets Bayonne-Paris (550 miles), the cost is 131€ (~£110), including cancellation insurance.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

108. Espadrilles

18th January 2011. At the end of yesterday afternoon, it was still bright and sunny so we went down to the beach at Anglet. Walking from the car park we could hear the sound of a heavier than usual surf breaking on the shore. Mountainous waves from somewhere out in the Atlantic were rearing up to crash into the breakwater with a massive whumph that could be felt through the feet.. The sea was dazzlingly white with foam and there was a crispness in the air that tasted clean and salty.
The late afternoon sun slanted through the golden haze that hung over the beach.. Spent waves - so high and threatening a hundred yards away - faded away to nothing on the sloping beach. The dog yelped with pleasure as he chased himself in lazy circles in the sand. Happy days!

If you're visiting the Pays Basque for the first time, it won't be too long before you notice that rope-soled shoes - espadrilles - are extremely popular. Classic summer wear down here, they are available in styles to suit all tastes, and they are very practical, fairly cheap, comfortable, lightweight, easy to pack and easily dried if they get wet.

Old-time smugglers reportedly preferred them (for their silent qualities) as they crossed the Pyrénées and certainly Florentino Goicoechea, the legendary Basque guide for the WWII Comet Line, (mentioned elsewhere here) used to make sure that all his escapees wore them.

They can be bought online in every style, colour and price imaginable from a number of suppliers: here here here here & here (in Mauléon), here (St Jean de Luz), here (Bayonne) and here (64120 Beyrie sur Joyeuse) and many other outlets.   

Lomo is another speciality of the Pays Basque and is served widely.. I believe it was originally a Spanish dish but it's been well and truly adopted on this side of the border. Lomo is pork fillet that's been rolled in <George Clooney voice> what else! - powdered piment d'Espelette - then sliced thinly before being either fried in a pan, or preferably cooked on a plancha, with what looks like red peppers here:
I came across this video the other day - it reminds me of the 5 months we spent in the gîte when I only had the one book to read. Fortunately, it was Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa", which I read 2-3 times while there. The quality of the writing would be a remarkable achievement for anyone whose mother tongue was English - that the author was Danish makes it all the more impressive. As a description of a land and its peoples it has few equals. Highly recommended if you haven't read it.

The one thing that spoils the dreamlike flying sequence is when Streep's character asks, "When did you learn to fly?" to which Redford responds, "Yesterday."..!

The scale of this part of Africa is something that appeals to me - the vast plains stretching into the immeasurable distance with the distant blue of the Ngong hills in the background. One day perhaps.

Postscript to my visit to the dentist the other day: we talked about San Sebastian and he said he thought it was the most beautiful city in the world. I'd not thought of that before but it's certainly right up there. I asked myself - which city/town is more beautiful..? Paris has to come into it somewhere. Where else? Don't be shy.. use the comment facility at the foot of this post. I'd be interested to hear other points of view. Here's a reminder - sit back and enjoy this swooping helicopter ride over the city - it starts at 1:19..

Meanwhile, à propos of nothing, I read today that Starbucks in the US is launching its new 31oz serving size for coffee and iced tea.. to be known as the Trenta.. That's just shy of a litre..! And where the Trenta goes, surely a Quaranta can't be far behind! A bargain bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a gorilla-sized portion of fries and a Trenta. What more do you want? Apart from a Hershey bar.. (and an oxygen tent!)

Monday, 17 January 2011

107. If you're serious about chocolate, then Bayonne is for you..

16th January 2011. More on chocolate and how it's made in Bayonne. First though, there was an article in the New York Times that, somewhat ambitiously, set out to discover which were the World's Best Candy Bars - American or British. Without wishing to raise a sceptical eyebrow at the narrowness of the scope of the column, from the get-go this has all the hallmarks of two bald men fighting over a comb. As the old Irishman in the joke explained when asked for directions to Dublin, "If oi was wantin' to be goin' to Dublin, oi wouldn't be startin' from here.." 

Cazenave chocolate
Daranatz chocolate
If there was a Chocolate World Cup (or World Series for US readers) and if I were to be judging it, then a bar from either of these ranges (left and right) would have a 'bye' straight through to the final. The other finalist would probably be Belgian. End of. I remember that during my first visit to the US I was curious to finally sample a Hershey bar first hand, having been brought up on the notion, via books and the cinema, that nothing else comes close. I bought one and was mightily disappointed. I found it sickly sweet and tasting of many things - except chocolate. I know the Hershey bar is, in many ways, an American cultural icon but the sad truth is that the taste simply doesn't live up to its reputation. To be fair, I'd probably disagree violently if I'd been raised on them! I also have to say that the UK's Cadbury Dairy Milk bar is second only to the Hershey bar when it comes to overpowering sweetness. A bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk contains just 20% chocolate and over a quarter of its weight is fat.

Here, chocolat is an entirely different beast. In the narrow streets of Bayonne, there is an old arcaded street - the rue du Port Neuf (left) - that is home to four master chocolatiers. They make their own chocolate from scratch. This is serious stuff (code for expensive!). You owe it to yourself to try a piece of real chocolate once (at least) in your life. The rich smell of chocolate wafts gently and seductively from the chocolate shops as you stroll by (if you are able!). L'Atelier du Chocolat, Cazenave and Daranatz are to be found within a few metres of each other tucked under the old stone arched colonnades on one side of the street - with Pariès on the opposite side nearer the river. A couple of streets away will be found Puyodebat. There's also Chocolat Pascal (32 Quai Galuperie), Leonidas (28 Rue Lormand) and Jeff de Bruges (19 Rue de la Salie) but I'm not familiar with these. Warning! You're going to hate me for telling you this but you can buy online from Cazenave, Pariès, L'Atelier du Chocolat and Puyodebat..

Dark chocolate appears to outsell the milk variety and I often see little old ladies in supermarkets reading the list of ingredients on the label to see the percentage of chocolate. Many readers in the UK will be familiar with Cadbury's Bournville - a popular dark chocolate. However, it contains only 36% of cocoa solids.. I would say that the standard here for dark chocolate is 70%. There is even a Lindt 99% bar. We invited our neighbour in for tea and cakes one afternoon and she arrived with a couple of bars of Casenave chocolate for us.. one milk, one plain. The plain chocolate was stunning - I'd guess an 8.1 on the Richter scale of chocolate taste.

You can actually buy chocolate flavoured with Piment d'Espelette. It's made by Espelette's very own chocolaterieAntton. You don't chew this - you simply hold it in your mouth and let it melt. Bliss! Antton offers a guided tour of their small factory (or atelier de fabrication as they call it - it sounds better) followed by tastings.. highly recommended. And they do mail order...
Espelette (with La Rhune in the distance)
I mentioned Piment d'Espelette in the previous post and I realise that not mentioning it before now has been a mammoth oversight on my behalf. Piment d'Espelette literally means “hot pepper of Espelette” in French. It's produced around the village of Espelette in the Pays Basque. This pepper is so famous that it has been given a protected designation by the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown in the Espelette region may be labeled as “Piment d'Espelette.” This is designed to protect the heritage and integrity of this unique pepper, which is a commonly-used ingredient in Basque food.

Peppers were one of the earliest imports from the New World, and they attracted immediate attention in southern Europe. Cooks realized that peppers could be easily cultivated in kitchen gardens, and that they made a convenient replacement for the much more costly black pepper. The earliest documented instances of pepper cultivation near Espelette date to the 16th century, and by the 18th century, the region was famous for its peppers. On the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, scroll down this link and you'll gain an idea as to the many and varied uses of Piment d'Espelette..
Piments d'Espelette hanging outside the Hotel Euzkadi in Espelette

The piment d'Espelette is red when mature, and relatively small and mild. Heat-wise, it is usually compared to paprika, another European pepper product. Piments d'Espelette also have a dark, slightly smoky flavour which can be intensified with roasting or pan-searing, and a robust peppery flavour which can be useful in a wide variety of dishes. These peppers are traditionally used to rub jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne ham), a famous export of the region, and they also appear in many other Basque dishes.
Red and green - there's no escaping these two colours in the Pays Basque - they are everywhere!
Fresh peppers are sometimes available at markets and grocers, and strings of dried peppers are usually readily available in south western France as well as being exported abroad. Piments d'Espelette are also sold in dried and powdered form, and in the form of pastes, which may be in jars, cans, or tubes. They are also sometimes blended into spice mixes which are meant to evoke the cooking of south western France. I'm guessing but I'm willing to bet that piment d'Espelette is a key ingredient in Sauce Basque (Forte) made by Sakari - and available online.
Espelette takes its famous export so seriously that it has an annual Celebration of Peppers every October, at which the piment d'Espelette takes centre stage. Peppers bedeck the streets while citizens compete with their favourite recipes and restaurants feature pepper dishes on their specials menus. Other regional foods are also feted during the annual Celebration, and for visitors to the region, it can be a great way to get a taste of Basque cooking. This clip shows Espelette during this time.. (Health Warning: If you're allergic to accordion music, now would be a good time to fit your Factor 30 max strength ear plugs!)
17th January 2011. Scooters are a constant and often intrusive part of the daily scene down here - buzzing (illegally) down bus lanes sounding like angry wasps in a coffee can, looking "cool" being ridden one-handed by their riders (in their dreams), carrying a surf board (it's true!) or with helmet unstrapped, using a mobile, or squeezing unannounced between lanes of traffic at a speed that makes no allowances for other people and overtaking on whichever side happens to suit. (starting to sound like Mr Grumpy!) The one thing they do that really gets my knuckles gleaming is when I'm at the head of a queue at traffic lights, it can be guaranteed that some eejit on a scooter will ride up the outside and then stop at an angle across the front of my car so as to be ready to be first away from the traffic light Grand Prix.. With these last, I'm often tempted to let my darker side take over..! 

If I asked a group of readers of a certain age to name as many scooter manufacturers as possible, I think it would be a pretty safe bet that the first and only names they would come up with would be either Vespa (left) or Lambretta (right). Nowadays, scooters are being churned out in their thousands by a huge number of manufacturers and they come in all shapes and sizes - from short stubby ones with buzzy little 50cc 2 stroke engines to much larger ones - with longer wheelbases that encourage a relaxed feet-forward riding style. Engine sizes? 50cc up to - yes - 850cc!

Gilera used to make wonderful 4 cylinder Grand Prix racing motorcycles in the '50s that made this spine-tingling sound (that scarred me for life when I was a kid) - but today, Gilera is busy with their interpretation of what a modern fast scooter should be - the Gilera GP800. The Gilera GP800 has a stonking great 8-valve, fuel injected, 90-degree, 840cc V-twin engine that will whisk you up to an astonishing 125mph (200kph). I don't care what you say but that is serious tackle to put in a scooter. Harley Davidson - eat your heart out!
This clip will give you a clue as to its performance.. here it is outdragging a Lamborghini (for a while):
Three wheeled scooters have made an appearance too.. and the civilised Piaggio MP3 is very popular with office workers here for beating the traffic and having that little bit extra stability and security on greasy road surfaces. Mind you, you should be careful what you get up to on one of these.. ahem!
The Japanese have a major presence in this market as you might have expected.. Here's Yamaha's class-leading offering - the TMax 500: 

Friday, 14 January 2011

106. A tale from the dentist

13th January 2011. We decided on a quick shopping trip to Dancharia in Spain yesterday to look at finding some lighter luggage suitable for our upcoming trip to Spain..

On the return journey, as we were driving down the snaking mountain road back towards Espelette (a village noted for le Piment d'Espelette and this great hotel/restaurant, and there are seven others - not bad for a village of only 2,000 inhabitants!) an oncoming car gave a discreet single flash of his headlights to the car in front of us - and the same again to us. In the Pays Basque, if agents of the State (gendarmes, CRS, police, Douanes) are out and about, operating a speed trap or a document check or, as was the case here, customs officers looking for people bringing commercial quantities of cheap cigarettes into France from Spain, then it is not unusual to be warned in this way. The strong streak of antipathy towards agents of the French State here is balanced by an equal measure of solidarity among the Basques. It's clear why this region was so successful in combatting the best efforts of the German Abwehr during WWII. There is such a solidarity that penetrating it must have been an almost impossible task.  

Now, to change the subject, if you have a 'thing' for chocolate, here's another Bayonne institution - Chocolaterie Daranatz.. I went there the other day to buy a small box of marrons glacés as a little treat for Madame. (If I give her a marron glacé I can do no wrong for minutes weeks afterwards..) If you're not a chocaholique, have a browse on their site - it will spoil you for ordinary chocolate. Chocolate from Daranatz and their close neighbours Cazenave is to High Street chocolate as a Hispano-Suiza convertible is to an Austin Allegro.. A word of caution: they do mail order!

14th January 2011. I went to my dentist in town this morning. His practice is in the Avenue Thiers - Bayonne's most elegant avenue - with its pale stone buildings and lined with trees that have been heavily manicured (square cut) in the French fashion.
Avenue Thiers
While he was attempting to get both hands and half of his tool-kit in my mouth(!), he started asking me the usual questions.. as they do! He then told me that there used to be a Monsieur Armstrong, an old Englishman, who lived next door to his surgery. He said Mr Armstrong was a widower who had been married to a lady from Bayonne - a beauty apparently. He'd been a pilot in the RAF during WWII and had lived in Bayonne for many years. Ten years ago, when Mr Armstrong was 85, he hadn't been seen by his neighbours for a while so finally the police were called to break his door down. He was found stone cold, slumped in an armchair with a bottle of whisky in front of him.. A sad end, but I suppose there are worse ways to go. I must admit that I did wonder on the way home if that would be my destiny too..? I'd better get some practice in! 

15th January 2011. I'm glad I crawled out of a warm bed early this morning to go down to the club - it was low tide and the river was still. There was a cloudless blue sky but it wasn't warm in the shadows. There was a good turnout this morning and we managed to put an VIII out on the water plus four IVs, several double scullers and singles. We took a coxless quad sculler out (2 nanas & 2 mecs) and it was unanimously agreed (by all apart from me!) that I should stroke it. At this point I should add I've not stroked a coxless four before. For any non-oarsmen reading this, steering is controlled by 'stroke' (me), with the rudder cable attached to the toe of my right shoe, which can pivot about the ball of the foot, moving the cable left or right. There was a total range of movement of about 3" (7.5cm) with the null position - ie, a dead straight rudder - in the centre. With the rudder centralised, the position of my right shoe was North/South - ie, straight up and down.  Unfortunately, when I'm rowing, my feet tend to settle at a "5 to 1" position (think clock) with the net result that the boat had a permanent tendency to turn to the left. I found it difficult to turn my right foot in to a "5 to" position and row at the same time.  We zigzagged our way up-river - with me zigging when I should have zagged -  through a low steamy mist which lay on the river - every now and again we'd burst out of the shadows into a sunlit cloud of golden mist.. very photogenic. In fact, I spotted a photographer on the bank taking pictures of us. Great morning to be out on the river. We did 14km this morning - most of which was in a straight line! (Running total: 372km). 

As it was a bright blue afternoon, Madame and I set off for Biarritz once I'd found my sunglasses. We parked on the cliffs near the lighthouse that overlooks the Grande Plage. As we looked south towards Biarritz, the sea was a dazzling silver as it reflected the bright sunlight.
There were some major rollers sweeping in and surfers could be seen getting entangled with them. The coast road in to the centre is the Avenue de l'Impératrice (Empress Avenue in Anglo-Saxon - think it sounds better in French!) and it is lined with over-sized houses built during Biarritz's heyday about 100 years ago when it was the go-to destination for the rich and famous. The style could be described as exotic eclecticism. That's to say, they are a unique merging of a number of styles - heavily gabled Basque, Art Deco, fantasy castle, Norman, Spanish hacienda & French Empire - that's only to be found at Biarritz. Many appear to have been sub-divided into apartments but there are still several that remain under single occupancy. These have no price. At the bottom of the hill lies the truly magnificent 5 star Hôtel du Palais - one of the world's great hotels. I can just see myself shuffling into their elegant dining room in my cardigan and slippers..
Turning right at the Palais, we headed down to the beach and the promenade. The sea was a sight to behold - surging waves were rolling in and breaking in confused explosions of foam. There appeared to be a strong undertow as incoming waves were colliding spectacularly with the outgoing remains of previous ones. And as each new wave crested just prior to breaking, steam-like spray would blow backwards off the top and a silvery mist hung over the beach. It was hot work sitting on the low wall watching the sea and there were even a few sun worshippers stripped down for bronzing action on the beach - some in bikinis (yes, in mid January!). After 15 minutes or so we decided we'd move before we were cooked through. (The temperature in the sun must have been upwards of 20°C)     

We walked up from the beach to the restored Art Deco Hotel Plaza where we sat outside for a coffee. It was so warm there we both took our jackets off.. So, Biarritz in January - what's it like I hear you ask..? Where to start..?

While I'm pondering that, enjoy the deceptive simplicity of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, the Second Movement (Allegretto)..

A couple of high quality flash mobs to finish with.. 
And this one filmed at the celebrated Café Iruña, Pamplona (another favourite resting place of a certain Mr E Hemingway).. 
And now back to our regular programming..!