Sunday, 4 December 2016

237. In the almost bleak midwinter..

31st December. Well, here we are again, waving goodbye to another year that's passed by all too quickly. It's been a mixed year for us here at Pipérade Towers so let's hope that 2017 brings all of us better health and happiness.

Best wishes to all of you out there in Blogistan! (looks like the Eiffel Tower below)

30th December. It's hard to imagine that the activity shown in this next video would be allowed to take place anywhere else in the world (and certainly not in the UK!) other than in France. Yes, it's the curious existence of the bouilleur ambulant (mobile distiller). These wandering artisan distillers tow their homemade alambics (stills) - quaint relics from an earlier age - around the countryside in la France profonde converting fermented fruit into eau-de-vie (alcohol) for the farming community. There are fewer and fewer of these primitive-looking but effective contraptions left in France. According to the commentary (ahem), this practice is "strictly regulated".

Now and again, I've come into contact with this homemade 'rocket fuel'. Towards the end of a meal, someone will produce an unlabelled bottle from under the table with a knowing wink and offer to add some to your coffee. I was once given a plain unmarked bottle of this colourless product and I was surprised at how drinkable it was. I've no idea what strength it is but from a cautious sip, I would say at least 50% BV. (I call it C-Stoff!) I'd expected it to taste like after-shave or something similar but I must say that it was smooth and it went well with a coffee. I think that may have been the night I tried to take my trousers off over my head!☺

26th December. Here's a little Christmas treat for me (and perhaps for you).. We were fortunate to have experienced Paris in the 60s in our early days and we still look back on those times with great fondness - they remain very special. Here's a reminder as the incomparable Charles Aznavour spells out this paean to his youth in Paris in La Bohème (English lyrics here):
Down to the beach at Anglet this morning for a brisk walk and a quick blast of sea air.. 8°C in still air with some mist over the sea.

24th December. I'd like to wish all those of you still here a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year..

23rd December. I was dispatched into town earlier on a mission to buy some beurre de baratte. If you're anything like me, you'll have heard of salted and unsalted butter and that's probably the extent of your butter knowledge (ie, good for 2 minutes including questions!). However, I've just learned that beurre de baratte is "butter made the old-fashioned way; churned rather than extracted with a centrifuge". I must admit to never having heard of this "centrifuge" method - I'd always thought that butter was still made by churning - albeit on an industrial scale. We'll see..

Listening to the news that the terrorist thought to be responsible for the Berlin truck atrocity has been shot dead in Milan at 3am this morning, it struck me that someone ought to point out to would-be jihadis that there's one great flaw in their rationale. As I understand it, these 'martyrs' are promised 72 virgins in the afterlife - but maybe they wouldn't be so keen to die for the cause if it was pointed out to them beforehand that this would also mean 72 mothers-in-law..

22nd December. To me, a Mens VIIIs Final is one of the great sporting events and the Olympic Final at Rio in the summer was no exception. Best watched in full screen.

This isn't a good time to be a pig in the Pays Basque. One of our favourite shops in town is Maison Montauzer.. and one of the gastronomic highlights of the next few days will be a lunch of Montauzer's boudin blanc with sautéd apple.. in which I'm afraid Monsieur Porc will play a starring role. This is an annual treat that's greatly anticipated by yours truly.

It hasn't escaped my notice that there's a growing pile of intriguingly wrapped packages under the Christmas tree.. So far, I've have been able to resist having a surreptitious squeeze and rustle of a few of the more tempting ones - but I'm making no promises. Sooner or later, I'm gonna blow! ☺

With only a few days left to run to Christmas, here's a radio station that will help to put you in the festive mood while you search the house for those elasticated waist pants!

21st December. Today sees us 'enjoying' the shortest day of the year.. From now on, the days will get longer and longer until the long-awaited day when my shorts make their public appearance again!  

20th December. Into town this morning to do some food shopping for Christmas - the highlight of which was a visit to the indoor market to buy some cheese. The range and variety of cheese has to be seen to be believed.. I was under orders to return only with a Vacherin Mont d'Or (left) and a Brillat-Savarin (right).. I was sorely tempted to disobey my instructions and return with an armload! One of these days, I'd like to have a meal composed entirely of cheese (from mild to strong.. with wines and bread to match.) Then there were the poultry counters.. selling everything from free range turkeys to guinea fowl, chapons (capons), ducks, geese, pheasant, quail plus others I can't remember. And for English readers, hardly a Brussels sprout to be seen!☺

19th December. Madame came out with another couple of her expressions the other day: "mâtiné cochon d'inde".. and "trois fois rien".. I think the first expression refers to an animal of unknown origin. The second one means three times nothing - or, as we might say: a very small quantity - like zilch or peanuts.

7th December. Feeling in need of some fresh air and, more importantly, a vin chaud, we shot down to Biarritz in the late afternoon. One of the odd things about Biarritz is that there's a distinct absence of cafés with atmosphere - strange but true. We tried a couple of places but with no joy - no vin chaud.. We ended up on the Grande Plage at the Café de la Grande Plage - and settled for a hot chocolate while we watched the sun going down. It was still warm enough to be sat outside on the seafront. If anyone knows of a good café in Biarritz, drop me a line - please!

We had a very pleasant surprise last night.. we'd been invited to a friend's for an apéro.. but when we arrived it soon became clear that we were actually going to be treated to something very special instead. Our friend had grown up in Arzacq, a commune that sits astride the border between Les Landes and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, close to Pau, and one of the regional specialities is Garbure.. (also a great favourite of mine). We were six around the table - and we were served from a huge steaming tureen.. I think it went back to the kitchen twice more to be refilled..! After that, we still managed to do justice to her homemade crême caramel (right).. A great evening!

6th December. I don't often recommend books I've read to readers of this blog - but here's one that you should find a place for. I'm grateful to 50% of my Australian readers (OK, one person!) for recommending James Rebanks "The Shepherd's Life" to me, and I'm more than happy to pass it on. (Thanks for the tip Sue!) This autobiographical account describes in some detail the life of a shepherd/sheep breeder in England's Lake District through the seasons. Health Warning: I don't think a page goes by without sheep being mentioned!

It would be fair to say that my bookshelves are not exactly groaning with sheep sagas of any description. However, in one of publishing's success stories this year, the author's passion for a way of life that came to him through a family involvement stretching back some 600 years jumps off the page as he describes with unexpected lyricism the appeal of working closely with his Herdwick sheep on his beloved land. I surprised myself by enjoying this fascinating insight into the normally closed world of the Lakeland sheep farmer. 
I've only ever seen the Lake District from the perspective of a tourist so this behind-the-scenes look at the harsh reality of farming against a bleak climatic background was eye-opening to me. Here's the man himself talking to ABC Australia's Richard Fidler. (well worth a listen) 

The final words in the book resonated with me: "This is my life. I want no other". I think the world would be a better place if more of us could say this. At the risk of sounding smug, his words express exactly how I feel about our life here in the Pays Basque.

The NY Times takes a look at the man behind the book.

I think there are parallels with the pastoral life here in the Pays Basque. This is a powerful poem that explains the visceral attachment Basques feel for their land and their house:

My Father's House - by Gabriel Aresti, 1963 (translated from the original Basque):

I shall defend the house of my father.
Against wolves, against drought, against usury, against the Justice,
I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall lose cattle, orchards and pinewoods;
I shall lose interests, income and dividends,
But I shall defend the house of my father.
They will take away my weapons and with my hands
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will cut off my hands and with my arms
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will leave me without arms, without shoulders and without breasts,
And with my soul I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall die, my soul will be lost, my descendants will be lost,
But the house of my father will remain standing.

The love for his way of life as expressed by James Rebanks is of a similar intensity to that of our Basque hosts at the gîte we rented on arrival here in 2007. I wrote in Post No 10 that: 
"One Saturday evening, we were invited down for drinks with M and Mme D.. It was still warm and we sat outside. He had a bottle of pastis, a bottle of home-made pineau and a bottle of malt whisky on the table. He speaks French with an accent so strong you could lean on it..! At one point he was talking about his love for his land, his farm and his animals and his eyes clouded with tears.."
If Controller Household asks what you'd like for your Christmas stocking, then assuming there's some financial headroom left after the mandatory bottle of Glenmorangie (as previously advised), see if you can slip in a late request for a copy of James Rebanks' "The Shepherd's Life".

4th December. England finished their season yesterday with a convincing win over Australia at Twickenham by 37-21. It has to be said that England rode their luck in the opening minutes as Australia made a blistering start. But for some close refereeing decisions, the Wallabies would easily and deservedly have been out of sight after 15 minutes of non-stop attacking rugby, inspired no doubt by the need to prove a point after being on the wrong end of a 3-0 series whitewash against England earlier in the year. England had clearly given Eddie Jones a good listening to at half time because after the break they simply blew Australia away and virtually all of the second half was played in Australian territory. The Wallabies are a classy side with many talented attack-minded players - such as the all action Hooper, Pocock, Falau, Haylett-Petty, etc - but I think England had self-belief in spades - and, importantly, a stronger bench.

Australia could rightly feel aggrieved with some of the refereeing decisions.. the replay after a Marland Yarde try was given by the TMO clearly showed it to be a knock on - and I think Haylett-Petty was unlucky to be given his marching orders for a mindless late tackle on Mike Brown. On another day, with another referee, it would have merited just a penalty. Having said that, I think England deserved their win. It augurs well for the Six Nations next spring.

Each time we drive north from here, we pass the turn-off for Biscarrosse after about an hour - and it's somewhere that's been on my "must see" list for a long time. Biscarrosse was once the centre for flying boat operations in France when, for a few short years, many people thought that these magnificent aeroplanes represented the future of aviation - especially on the transatlantic routes. This remarkable aircraft - the Latécoère 521(right & below) had six engines - four pulling and two pushing - and it could carry 72 passengers and stay aloft for 33 hours..(gulp!) This manufacturer had some strange ideas.. (see here) Looking at the finished product, it seems to me that the aeroplane was assembled by someone who hadn't read the instructions..
A museum has been established at Biscarrosse to celebrate the golden age of the flying boat in France. Have a look at the Biscarrosse webcam..

3rd December. A splendid lunch yesterday in good company. I'm on the committee of a local association and our president had kindly invited us all to his home for a seasonal lunch. There were ten of us seated around a long table.. and we quickly got up to taxying speed with the aid of some 10 year old Aberlour single malt whisky. 

He told us that the day would have been his sister's 90th birthday. (Sadly, she passed away in June 2015). He showed us a photograph of his sister in happier times with her husband after the war. We raised our glasses to a very special lady.

She and her parents had been actively involved during WWII in sheltering shot-down Allied pilots and helping them to return to the UK via Spain and Gibraltar. They had been arrested in early 1943 and had suffered cruelly in their interrogations and during their subsequent deportation to the hell holes that were the concentration camps of Buchenwald (the father) and Ravensbrück (mother and 16 year old daughter). 

During the hubbub of conversation that followed, this story set me thinking  and my thoughts went back to someone I'd met a long time ago. I'd spoken to the president's sister a few times and I was always struck by her physical resemblance to a lady I once knew on a Greek island in the 1960s. She was a Jew and she had been deported from the island, along with almost 1700 others, via a long and harrowing journey to Auschwitz. Amazingly she survived - and she was one of a handful who returned after being liberated. She lived next door to me in the old town and sometimes I'd hear her screaming during the night. She once showed me a faded blue number tattooed on her left forearm. She had a haunted expression on her face and looked at least ten years older than her husband (who was actually older than her). She'd seen things that no-one should ever see. RIP Maria.


Margaret Smith said...

As the other 50% of your Australian readers (!) I want to thank you for writing about James Rebanks and "The Shepherd's Life". Although I often listen to Richard Fidler's "Conversations" program, I had missed this particular one so I followed your link to go listen and enjoyed it very much. What an inspiring man. I shall now have to get the book. So thanks again.

Pipérade said...

It's always good to flush another reader out into the spotlight Margaret! Thanks for your comments - but I can't claim any credit for discovering James Rebanks or his interview on the Richard Fidler programme - that must go to my other Australian reader!
It's hard to think of a less-promising subject for a first-time author than an exhaustive account of Lakeland sheep farming but I think what draws the reader in to "The Shepherd's Life" is James Rebanks' realisation that he too is just as much a part of the continuum of that ancient way of life as his sheep and his land are. That and the pleasure that comes from reading the story of someone who is happy with his life.
I'm afraid I read too quickly and so I often return to re-read a book I've enjoyed once the dust has settled. This is one I'll be re-reading.
Thanks again for commenting..
Happy Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Still here, we have had venison done in the slow cooker with enough to go around again next week. Ted and our canine guest have had a few bits of meat, veg and gravy on their biscuits just 'cause it's Christmas. I hope they wont be expecting a cooked meal every day! Lesley

Pipérade said...

You can always put some leftovers in the post to me..! Haven't had venison for years.. used to enjoy that when north of the border. Pheasant is another notable absentee here - and it's always v expensive whenever I have seen it here. Hope my No 1 reader is having a good Christmas!☺