Monday, January 28, 2008

tout en vrac

Spring seems to be coming early this year. The weather has been sunny and mild. The nights clear and frosty. The pigeons have been breeding, and they shouldn't be until well into spring.
Here are two pics of a pigeon just out of its egg. In fact its arse is still stuck in the half-shell. (sounds like something the French would eat actually - "arse of young pigeon in the half-shell")
pigeon chick
pigeon chick
Pigeons lay 2 eggs. The other egg in this nest hatched the next day and as of today (3 days later) they are still doing well. Still ugly. Only their mother could love something like that.

I took advantage of the good weather and the end of my shift cycle to walk the dogs down by the lake. There is a little spillway and the river goes under a bridge....

It was all very tranquil and peaceful, accompanied by the gentle music of distant chainsaws...

This week sees the 35th Annual Comic Book Festival at Angouleme. The guest of homour is José Muñoz. I have had an Alack Sinner book of his for years. We had to go to Angouleme to get some stuff done so I thought I'd track him down and get it autographed. This was Saturday - 2 days ago. I was surprised that traffic was ok and there was still quite a bit of parking in the underground car parks. The streets were crowded and there was a good atmosphere. Here's a pic of some stilted creatures that were walking the streets.

When we found where Muñoz was, it was too crowded, the kids were niggling and you had to pay to get in so, merde.
Alors, a mixed bag of stuff all in one post or, tout en vrac, as they say.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Normal Service will now resume

Thanks to very poor co-ordination between France Telecom and Tele2 we were without telephone or internet for 4 days.
Our main phone supply was France Telecom. France is slowly coming around to competition to its major services: phones, gas, electricity water etc. Internet supply was through Wanadoo, who were bought out by Orange and both are linked to France Telecom.
When the nice man from Tele2 made me an offer I couldn't refuse I agreed to sign with them for internet access and unlimited telephone calls.
I had presumed that the unlimited calls were through the box, in the same way that with my Orange Livebox I had a second phone line that was thru the net and thus unlimited and free. Except that that phone line hadn't worked for nearly a year, since the last time the Livebox was "en panne". But I was so relieved when Orange restored my internet connection I didn't dare disturb them for the second phone line.
So . . . weeks had gone by since the phone call from the Tele2 man. A letter had arrived confirming that we had agreed a contract, but still no hardware, when one afternoon the internet stopped, and half an hour later the phone was no longer working either. "le numero que vous avez demande n'est plus accesible" Great.
When I got home from the factory I tried the various France Telecom service numbers from the cafe but got messages saying they were busy please call back later.
Why were we cut off? I couldn't understand it. Everone joked that it was because we hadn't paid our bills, but the next bill was only due in a few weeks. And they hadn't sent a warning letter as they do when the bills are late.
When I finally got through to France Telecom the next day I was told that we were no longer clients because we had signed a contract with a new supplier.
"But I haven't received anything from the new supplier!"
"Ah, but that is not our problem"
"Will I lose my phone number and email address? I've used them for 4 years now, I can't inform all my friends and computer programs won't recognise me"
"I can't tell you that sir, perhaps you should call our customer service number tomorrow."

The next day, telling my tales of frustration in the cafe, Michel tells me there is a package for me. (The cafe doubles as a post office)
It's the box from tele2. But I don't have time to install it, the factory beckons.
When I finally got around to installing the box I decided to first remove all the Orange/Wanadoo stuff, then trawl the registry for stray entries.
I followed the Tele2 instructions for setting up there box, plugged the phone in and Hey Presto! the phone had a dialling tone. We could call out again. Calling in still gave the same "le numero que vous avez demande n'est plus accesible" message.
My computer couldn't connect WiFi (not capable) The ethernet connection said I didn't have an ethernet port and they hadn't supplied a USB cable. Bastard!
Playing around with the PC settings I find my Ethernet port is disabled. Enable the bugger and Whoosh! I have internet access again.
I filled in the new client online form and Whoosh! my phone is now working with the same phone number.
When I downloaded emails there were about 60 messages backlogged, among them a mail from Tele2 telling me that i was about to lose the functionality on my phone line, but this was normal and was the indication that I can now connect my Tele2 box.

So everything would have been OK:
IF the box had arraived at the same time, or before the email, and
IF France telecom hadn't cut me off before the email arrived.

Is it because it's France or are all telecomms services this flakey?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Calins Gratuits (Free Hugs)

On September 22nd, 2006 a video on YouTube showed a man walking through a mall with a big sign "FREE HUGS". People's reactions change from suspicious to eventually accepting a free hug, and then helping out and getting others to join in.
By January 4, 2008, the video had been viewed over 22 million times and the phenomenon has spread to many countries.

Free hugs was used by the French ministry of health to raise awarenss of AIDS.
There are Free Hugs campaigns all over France. Visit their website at Calins Gratuits
or ContreDiscrimination or visit the Wikipedia entry for Free Hugs to find out where there is one near you.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Great Tits

No, it's not a cheap shot to get traffic.
Feeling sorry for the garden birds during winter, we put up some bird food outside the kitchen window. It's really great to see the birds. The most common visitors are the mésange bleue (blue tit) and mésange charbonnière (great tit).
mésange charbonnière (great tit)
The cats are perplexed. The window is now their wide-screen hi-definition television and "Birdlife" is their favourite channel. They spend hours sitting and watching the birds. There are 2 feeders, and they sit there, swivelling their heads like spectators at a tennis match:

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hairy Bar Snacks

How to make save mony on supermarket pork promos and make Pork Scratchings along the way.
It's this time of year that the supermarkets start having their pork promos. You can pick up a whole, or half a pig for about 1.20Euro a kilo. And the supermarket will cut it up for you free of charge.
We didn't have tons of dosh last week, thanks to all the end of year fetes so we bought a shoulder (again).

If you zoom in on the label you'll see that this baby was 1.40 per kg and cost 11.21 so it was 8 kilos of shoulder.
Step one is to drink the beer, and step two is to sharpen the knives. My attitude to all this is that I'm not a trained butcher so I don't expect the results to be pretty. I'm sure the more I do it, the better I'll get.
I took the wrist end (do pigs have wrists? I'll bet there's a butcher's term for the joint) off and will use that as a little roast. Kept the skin and fat on it. I then removed te one from the shoulder and gave it to the dogs. Who were well pleased.
I then trimmed off the skin (to be used for the pork scratchings later) and cut out the biggest, neatest, least scraggy bit of meat which rolled up nicely for another roast.
the rest of the meat I cutt into stewing sized cubes and packed in freezer bags at about 1lb 500g each. I got five bags out. So that should make five meals for 11 euros. A bargain. Here are the finished portions.

Now, the Pork Scratchings. The last time I did this with a promo shoulder I threw the skin and fat away. This time I wanted no waste so I did a bit of research on the net and found that Pork Scratchings are very popular, but recipes are few and far between. I cut the skin into big chunks and put it into the heavy cast-irone cocotte, with a bit of olive oil.

I put this, with its lid on, into the wood burning stove which was alight anyway, as it heats the kitchen. I left it for about an hour, in a hot oven, and I could hear it banging, popping and hissing.
I took it out when it was golden, threw in a handfull of coarse salt and lit it cook a bit more. The skin was crispy, the fat crunchy and there was about 500ml of fat.
The scratchings drained overnight and were a success.

Credit for the title of this post goes to the Pork Scratchings web site. We used to call them "turkey scabs" or "Pommy biltong"


Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday's Favorite French Things

Galette des Rois
January 6 was Epiphany, the day the catholic & orthodox churches celebrate the "shining forth" or revelation of God in human form, to the Gentiles, in the person of Jesus.
Two things take place in France during Epiphany:
1. All the Christmas decorations come down
2. Galettes de Rois make an appearance. These either look like the photo below:
Galette des Rois
and are filled with an almond paste and a "fève", or are in a ring or crown shape and made of brioche. The fève is a little ceramic thingy that used to have a religious theme, but these days can be anything from a Smurf to a St Mary to Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
When the galette is cut up, the person who gets the piece with the fève is king (or queen) and gets to wear the crown. In bars/cafes or work, the person with the fève gets to buy the next round. Children have been known to get violent over the fève and will resort to prodding the entire galette with their grubby little fingers until they locate the fève.
For lunch today Fi & I made a savoury galette, and it was bloody delicious.
Galette Nicoise
Easy to make - here is the recipe
Galette Nicoise
Pre-heat oven at 200C
2 tins of Croissante pastry. Get these in the refigerated section at your supermarche. It comes in little tins and there are 4 croissants each tin.
2 chicken breasts
1 onion
handful of lardons
feta cheese
emmental cheese (optional)
black olives
red pepper
Cook the onion and lardons with a bit of garlic and herbes de provence. Set aside.
Cut the chicken into small pieces and fry, with some salt, black pepper & a squeeze of lemon juice.
chop half the red pepper & cook in the empty pan
In a bowl, mix the chicken, onion/lardons pepper, black olives and cheese. The emmental will make the mixture more melty and moist.
In a buttered baking tray, place the triangles of croissante pastry, pointy sides outwards so that the bases overlap. To get them even try starting with the 4 poles like in a compass and then put in 4 more overlapping pieces in between.
spoon the chicken mixture onto the widest parts of the triangles and then fold the points over the mixture towards the middle. Zoom in on the photo above and you'll get the idea.
Place it in the oven and cook for about 10-15 mins until the pastry is golden. Careful to not burn the underneath.

Easy peasy - spectacular looking and tasty. We called it "Galette Nicoise" or "Couronne Nicoise" to fool our chauvanistic french guests who wn't eat anything that isn't french. They fell for it.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Reveillon nouvel an

The New Year's Eve celebrations caused agonies of decision making because of the price. Every year the owners of the cafe over the road do a New year's Eve bash in the Salle des Fetes. And this year they were charging 45 Euros a head.
Now in actual fact 45 Euros is not a lot when you consider the menu (later) and the wine included and the music. But with 4 adults (my in-laws are currently staying with us) and 2 kids it meant stumping up a bill of over 200 Euros, and after all the money spent on Chrimbo, that was quite an amount.
The Salles des Fetes is also over the road from us and last year we stayed at home and I could hear the noise of the people partying while we were Johnny-no-mates. I determined then that I was going to party New Year there come hell or high water.
After showing everyobody that other reveillons were costing up to 90 Euros each and after itemising the menu, everybody decided it was good value for money after all.
Kick off was 8:30, on a very cold and foggy night. Michel (cafe proprieter) had been teasing me that we would be seated next the village drunk and his companion. She plucks out all her eyebrows and then draws in new ones that make her look like a very suprised wasp (and paints her eyelids bright shiny blue).
I was relieved to find we were nowhere near them, and surrounded by french folk. the hall was undecorated but the tables nicely laid. The room smelled of delicious food and the band were already playing.
The menu:
Soup de Poisson
Fruits de mer (Oysters, prawns, bulots and half a langouste)
Melon & Foie Gras
Queues de Langoustinea a l'ail & cepes
Civet de ChevreuilPause Charentaise
Ostrich steak
Salade a Noix
Buche de Noel & Glace

The Band
Pha Si La Danser
First - whatever I may say to the contrary, the band was excellent. They were called Pha Si La Danser. Typical french play on words. The "Pha Si La" part is to do with french musical notation. They don't do ABCDEF like us they do Do Ray Me So like in Sound of Music. The whole name sounds like "Facile a Danser" or easy to dance.
Look at those splendid shiny shirts and pants with a stripe. They boy on sax was also the singer. he had heavily accnted french and a warbly voice that couldn't hold a note. He was brilliant. They played between every course of the meal and everybody danced. Waltzes and polkas and stuff. It was the only way to get through a meal of those proportions.
The fish soup was superb, and there was a nice Alcase white to go with it. (Did I mention that all the wine was included in the price?), and the next course, the fruits de mer was very generous. There were oysters and prawns, and big whelk-like things called bulots and a langouste cut in half. This had a tail bigger than a prawn, but smaller than a crayfish, and a claw about 10cm long. The claw was already cracked and contained delicious salmon-red meat. Many of my neighbours didn't like their whelks which were a bit rubbery, but had a peppery kick to them. They all ended up on my plate and I must have had more than 20 of the things.
Below is my father-in-law Byron and my son Callan busy with oysters.
Byron's fruit de mer
Callan with oysters
I won't detail every dish, but they were all great and I would have been happy with any one of them alone for a normal meal.
At midnight balloons and streamers, hats, horns, poppers and pea-shooters were issued, and there was much kissing and good-wishing going on. Us men got to do the manly gallic kissing, the only time off the football field men are allowed to kiss each other. Briony took advantage of the red noses for a photo op.
Briony at midnight
and this is me fairly pissed, reloading a pea-shooter
Pissed pea-popper

We staggered home at about 3:00 am and we were in the first wave of leavers. Speaking to some of the guests afterwards, they were there dancing till after 4:00.

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