Friday, 25 May 2012

187. Bayonne and the plancha both sizzle..

25th May 2012. Summer's here! Yee-haar! Forecast is for ~28 today. Shorts and t-shirt weather. Other signs of summer? Bayonne's resident busker - I call him SaxMan™ - is back after a long winter absence! He's taken up his customary spot opposite the Monument aux Morts and he's playing the very same 10 second riff over and over again that he played last year. He must be driving the poor people in the shop behind him crazy.. Also, I dragged the plancha out of the garage, up the steps and it's now installed on the terrace and ready for action after a wipe down and general cleaning off of assorted crud & spiders etc. Here's a clip from TVPI (our local TV station) which gives some tips about cooking with a plancha (adjust the picture quality to 480p using one of the buttons at the bottom of the screen):

Here's another recipe for a plancha - chicken with sweetcorn - again, set the quality to 480p. (more plancha recipes here): 
We've just had sardines and mackerel fillets on our plancha.. eased down with some cold sangria. Mmmm.. I usually avoid mackerel as I always found it oily in England. I'd say that the ones we've just had were the best fish of any kind that we've had for a very long time, and even better with some Basque hot sauce. This Basque sauce is so tasty and piquant - Madame always adds a dash or two when sauté-ing veg and it really gives them a lift. Well worth trying and available online from the link above. If you do order some, don't be tempted to go for the mild one - the 'Forte' one as in the picture is perfect. The only thing I missed was a cup of Greek coffee - I'm completely out of it at the moment so I'm doing cold turkey. When I've asked around for it in town, all I get is blank looks.. even in the delis in Biarritz. There's an element of "This is the Pays Basque - we don't do foreign food here!" Fortunately, I found a stockist on the French ebay site so there's a package on its way.

I went for a ride along the Nive this afternoon - and like a dummy I forgot my bottle of water.. I went as far as Ustaritz which is 25+km. I was gagging for a cold drink when I returned home! It's 29 in the shade in the garden.

This weekend sees 160 rowers from all over France converging on Bayonne to take part in the annual "Trois Rivières" event. This is an arduous event - especially if the temperatures are up as high as they are today. They'll row 72 km in 3 days on the Gave, the Adour and the Nive. I did it 2-3 years ago and I was doing John Wayne impressions for a few days afterwards. In the evening there's much jollity and conviviality so, all in all, it's a great weekend.

The Fêtes de Bayonne is only a couple of months away. This is, by any standard, madness writ large. Bayonne has some 40,000 inhabitants but over the 5 days (& nights) of the Fêtes, some 1.3 million people flood in.. The rowing club organise a regatta during the Fêtes and here's a clip from last year's event to give you a flavour of what it's all about:
As you can see, rowing here is quite informal and you won't see stripey blazers, bow ties etc as you might elsewhere. But make no mistake - there are some extremely dedicated oarsmen and women here. We usually disappear over the days of the Fêtes and head for the mountains as town becomes unbearable.

30th May 2012. We're having a few days away now - we're taking a long lazy swing through Provence before heading up to the Jura region..
Should be back in mid June.. 

Meanwhile, here's a London 'Bobby' showing that failing a Riverdance audition needn't be an end to your dreams of stardom..!

Here's how it should be done:

Sunday, 20 May 2012

186. Wet and windy Pays Basque

19th May 2012. Thunder and lightning overnight here, followed by the welcome hiss of rain. Of course, the dog was quick to take advantage of the situation by jumping up on the bed and shivering in time with each rumble of thunder.. 

I found this video this morning.. it's Manfred Radius, a glider pilot in the US, who carries out spectacular displays at night trailing sparks from fireworks mounted on his wingtips - all accompanied by classical music. Stirring stuff! (I couldn't place the beautiful music at first - but to put you out of your misery it's the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana
20th May 2012. I was walking the pooch this morning along the beach at Anglet when there was the sudden unmistakable roar of military jet engines. Looking south towards Biarritz, I spotted seven Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France arrowing across the coast in a relaxed 'gaggle' out into the bay at low level (~200') before heading north under threatening grey skies - looking for all the world like predatory sharks as they returned to their base after taking part in a weekend airshow at St Jean de Luz..    
Rugby is the sport down here in the South West. The fact that it was successfully implanted here owes much to one Harry Owen Roe, a Welshman who came here to Bayonne on a rugby tour over 100 years ago and liked it. (Think he might have met someone!) There's a lot more about Harry Owen Roe here. He was clearly held in such high regard that the town even named the street that runs down the side of the Aviron 'garage' Rue Harry Owen Roe after him!
Football is definitely a minority sport here and driving through the countryside it's surprising just how many rugby goal posts you see. Here's a clip from TVPI, the local TV channel, that gives an idea of the passion and enthusiasm for the game in the south west and the Pays Basque in particular:
Finally, in case you've been wondering what Pipérade is all about, it's a classic Basque dish and it has to be one of the world's tastiest. Sparing no expense, here's a chef from Carrefour to show you how it's made. This is a really simple dish to prepare and as I said before, it's delicious. So, no excuses for not trying it out!
NB: Try to use the freshest of eggs and Bayonne ham sliced as thinly as possible.

24th May 2012. Today it's a perfect day for a sea trip. Let's go fishing from the Vieux Port in Biarritz.. (where we usually eat sardines):

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

185. The Big Makhila

8th May 2012. Much of France is closed down today as it's VE day. I stopped at the Monument aux Morts (right) on my way to buy a baguette as there was a ceremony imminent. A contingent of élite 1er RPIMa soldiers (Special Forces) from their citadelle across the Adour were present as well as anciens soldats with their standards from former times and conflicts. At previous ceremonies like this that I've seen here, the music was presented via a CD player or a very small number of musicians. Today was different - a military band did the honours and, as usual, the dry rattle of the sidedrums and the blaring trumpets during the Marseillaise sent a shiver through me..

More stirring stuff from the Biarritz-based Basque choir Oldarra:

This clip originates from across the border in the Spanish Basque country..

I think you have to be Basque to appreciate some aspects of Basque culture..

I've mentioned 'Makhilas' before here but without really going on to explain what they're all about. A Makhila is a traditional Basque walking stick - but with a difference..! They're made of medlar (néflier in French) - a highly resistant, dense and durable hardwood that is often engraved. The lower part is finished with a decorative ferrule while the top part is fitted with a hand grip - often of tightly woven leather - topped by an ornamental pommel. A quick twist of the handgrip removes it to expose a short spike - thus converting the walking stick into an instant weapon. They are hand-made and made-to-measure - the craftsman taking into account the owner's height and weight. 
No two are the same. They are highly prized and often offered as presentation pieces to mark a special occasion.

The wood of the slow growing Medlar tree is hard, even, fine grained and polishes well and is reported to be practically unbreakable. The wood has practically no commercial value as the tree stays relatively small and its branches aren't necessarily straight. Because the wood is hard, it has been used for spear points, hunting and warfare clubs, fighting sticks and making windmill parts - especially some of the turning wheels. The process of making a Makhila starts in the spring with carving lines on a living branch of a tree that's at least 15 years old before harvesting the branch in the winter. Over the summer, the design of the carving expands with the growth of the tree. 

The bark is removed and the branch straightened with the aid of the heat of a kiln - this operation requires a great deal of skill. The wood is then allowed to dry naturally for several years after which the wood is stained using family techniques handed down for generations.

The stick is finished with made-to-measure decorative fittings which are cut, carved, braced and decorated pieces of brass, silver, German silver or gold.. The handle is either metal or tightly bound with leather strips and finished with a horn or worked metal pommel. The handle can be easily removed to reveal a forged steel spike. Traditional Makhilas are inscribed with a short verse of the owner's own symbolism in Basque. The making of a Makhila is a tradition passed down from father to son and there are very few Makhila makers left. I know of two - one here in the centre of Bayonne and another at Larressore.

Scroll forward to 10:44 on this next clip to see Makhilas being made at nearby Larressore:
I noticed with a start this morning that the Caisse d'Epargne building (that I mentioned in post # 182) in the historic centre of Bayonne is being demolished! The mayor must obviously be an avid reader of the blog!

Changing the subject just a little, I noticed the other day that McDonalds here are now selling a McBaguette!

(NB: McDonalds is known as McDo here - pronounced McDough) All of this reminded me of that memorable dialogue in "Pulp Fiction" between Vincent and Jules on the cultural differences between the US and Europe:

It's 28 in the shade here this afternoon - where did that come from..?☺ 

This week's special offer is a free trip over the Pays Basque in a hot air balloon (or un vol en montgolfière as it's known here). It's best in full screen:

10th May 2012. Forecast to be 32 this afternoon - the temp's soaring past 29 in the shade at the time of writing (1pm)..

Thirty minutes ago at 5pm it was 33½ in the shade in the garden.. phew! The dog's re-discovered the pleasure of lying spread-eagled in all his favourite cool places in the house.

12th May 2012. We had the house double glazed 2-3 years ago by the charming couple who run a company based at St Jean de Luz. (highly recommended) They came and measured up before returning a few weeks later to fit the new windows. They finished in 1½ days and left the house spotless. A couple of weeks ago we received an invitation from them to an apéro-dinatoire to mark their 1st year of business at their second shop they've opened at nearby Anglet. As they know we don't require any more windows it was just a nice friendly goodwill gesture. We went there yesterday evening - there must have been 20 or so other happy customers - and we had a very pleasant evening.. There was a beautifully presented selection of food - plus various drinks - soft drinks, wine, rhum-based punch, whisky, pastis etc etc. When we left, they gave us a complimentary umbrella and a sports cap.

This morning I was all set for an outing in a beautiful Swiss-built wooden shell coxed IV.. we'd got as far as putting the boat on the water and we were sitting in it when someone had a technical problem which meant we had to change boats. The only boat remaining was a glass fibre yolette (left). Wider and heavier than our more usual boats, these are what beginners here usually start in. I have to say I wasn't looking forward to the sortie but once we'd heaved it off its rack, put it on the water and set off I was pleasantly surprised. We were a mixed ability crew - which I approve of - two of the guys had only taken up rowing last October. I was at 'stroke' and as we headed off up-river - the last boat to leave the pontoon by some margin - I was immediately impressed by how solid the boat felt and soon the boat was running free in the water between strokes with that distinctive sound.

(l to r) Cheryl, Philippe & Geoff
I forgot to mention that the previous Saturday I'd been invited to attend the annual meeting of an association concerned with the Comet WWII escape line that operated successfully in this area. The meeting was held in Hendaye - situated right on the border with Spain - as a gesture to those travelling from San Sebastian. I'm now a committee member. Planning for this year's commemoration is virtually complete with just a few minor tweaks resulting from suggestions raised at the meeting. This year, instead re-tracing the original mountain crossing route (as in previous years) that ran from Ciboure-Urrugne-Bidegain Berri-Bidassoa-Sarobe farm-Renteria used by Comet up to early 1943, an inland route from Sutar-Ustaritz-Larressore-Espelette-Dantxaria adopted after the arrests at Bidegain Berri farm in January '43 will be used. This has been thoroughly researched with the families involved and I believe it keeps as close as possible to the one of the original routes. In a separate initiative, Philippe Connart, Cheryl Padgham and Geoff Warren conducted their own research (here) and it will be interesting to see how congruent the routes turn out to be. Here's a map they produced showing the various inland routes.

In conjunction with the descendants of those courageous wartime passeurs, the committee has arranged a splendid long weekend that I'm sure all attendees will enjoy. Apparently, the final day sees a climb steeper than anything experienced on the more traditional route. This should put to rest any lingering fears 'out there' that this year's commemorative march will be but a pale shadow of the traditional Ciboure route.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

184. Après moi, le déluge

2nd May 2012. It looks like the weather has finally turned warm and dry again here.. In common with much of the rest of western Europe we've been deluged with water here for the last hundred years / well, since Christmas anyway / last month (delete as applicable) and, with the sun up and running, the garden has started a belated frenzy of growth. The graphic on the right shows the different amounts of rainfall experienced between March and April across major cities in France. Look who's #1..!

I have to mention the lawn here - I know I'm going to regret saying this but at last it's starting to look reasonable with no bare patches. We've tried a number of different types of grass seed before landing on the one that seems to be working best - Gazon Rustique Sud. This is a coarser bladed grass of the type that seems to flourish in the US - hopefully it will resist the baking summer heat better than its predecessors.. And if anyone else out there has been plagued with birds pecking the life out of their garden then I can highly recommend dangling some old CDs in strategic places. I was slightly sceptical about this old trick but since I hung about half a dozen up a week or two ago, the garden has been bird-free - which is a pity as I like having birds around - but, for some unknown reason, they'd been pecking the bejasus out of the lawn.. Tip: Des O'Connor CDs seems to work best!

This cartoon reminded me of the frustration I felt 6 months ago after my PC had a major meltdown due to a virus that I inadvertently let in.. PCs have become such a necessary part of our daily lives as we turn to them more and more - accessing news from all parts of the globe, managing our finances online, linking up with friends via a webcam on Skype and a thousand other things we never dreamed of. Consequently when our PCs have a hiccough, the impact is felt immediately and across a whole range of our activities. This cartoon sums up the feelings I had the last time it happened.  

It's a long time since I've featured a slide guitar here so here goes - it's from that underrated little film "Crossroads":
6th May 2012. Yesterday evening at ~5pm the new SNCF bridge being built to replace the 152 year old structure in the background - built by Gustave Eiffel (yes, him!) - collapsed into the Adour. Full story here. (English  translation here) (Slideshow here)
Bridge in the troubled water
The Sous-Préfet of Bayonne has been quick to act - for safety reasons, he has closed the river to traffic. That means, for the immediate future, that my former club - Société Nautique de Bayonne - will not be able to row upstream from their position just a few metres downstream of the two bridges and, secondly, rail traffic has been forbidden to cross the old Eiffel bridge just a few metres away.
The two rowing clubs in Bayonne (Société Nautique de Bayonne and Aviron Bayonnais) have co-existed in an uncomfortable relationship since Aviron Bayonnais (my club) was formed in 1904 by a breakaway faction of Société Nautique members following the expulsion of an individual for irregular activities (ahem!), perhaps more befitting the former head of the IMF! As the more turbulent waters of the Adour downstream from the Société Nautique don't consistently lend themselves to rowing, the Société Nautique might elect instead to row on 'our' river, the Nive. Who knows, it could even lead to a thawing of the relationship and perhaps a rapprochement