Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A walk around Hénon

I have lately been tasked with the care and feeding of J's cat while J is on holiday.  Not a difficult job, but not a very interesting one, since while Scatty is a cat with much fur and excess weight, she does not possess much personality.  She sometimes shows herself briefly when I arrive, once or twice has tolerated a couple of strokes, then retreats under the bed.  In my absence, she eats much of the food - about a quarter of the amount I have been instructed to give her but more than enough -  and uses the litter tray, thereby justifying my turning up at all, to top up the former and clean up the latter, but there is no incentive to sit around and keep her company.  It has been perishingly cold and she has no interest in going out of doors, and I can't say I blame her.

So I had a walk round Hénon, where J lives, a small commune a few kilometres over the hill from where we live.  There is nothing remarkable or picturesque about the place, it is rather down at heel and has not been subjected to the kind of makeover that even our own commune of Plémy has lately undergone, involving reckless planting of hornbeam trees and construction of such new-fangled things as pavements and kerbs throughout the length of the bourg - the village centre - and a consequent rise in our local taxes.  It's tempting to say Hénon  doesn't have much personality either, but this is perhaps unfair. Its lack of modernity offers some elements of interest in itself,  

for example, in the old-fashioned French-blue house number plates.  In most communes now, the street signs usually have white backgrounds and feature an up to date commune logo, and indeed many in Hénon are a rather harsh grass-green on white, but that which commemorates the young Resistance fighter Jean Sio ('died for France, wishing to save his comrades from being taken prisoner'), which is fixed to the wall of J's house,  once, it's said, the café where the Resistance members met, has been retained.  Whatever necessary and truthful revisions have been made to the accounts and mythologising of those times and people, and whatever the story was, Jean Sio was terribly young.  In the woods and hedgerows where Molly and I have sometimes walked, are shabby marble stones and crosses marking the spots where he and others were shot.

An odd name, Sio, perhaps one of those of Spanish origin that abound in these parts, which are peppered with Caros and Hellios. Carlos and Philippos, legacy of the Wars of Religion, when, and I'm not quite sure how and why, many Spanish settled here.  The section of the First World War memorial in the collage below, shows that nine young men with the family name Carlo lost their lives a generation before, among scores of others.

And there are other quaint and sometimes cheerier things to be found here: the remains of an old pump on a house wall; the nurses' office which used to be quite an imposing public baths and showers (Hénon Bains-Douches), a funny little man on a roof end (these are called épis de faitage, this one is a traditional design but probably modern), walking and biking trails, a hairdresser whose name means 'a thousand and one cuts' (ugh, why do they so often call them that?) vegetable patches tucked away round many a corner; more oddities in the way of doors and windows, ramshackle and dilapidated, neat and prettified, than you can shake a stick at; and a general store-cum-butcher's, with the curious mosaic 'boucherie' sign.  This is the only one of these here, but other small inland towns also possess these, all of a similar style.  Again, I don't know their history or provenance, but there was a family of Italian mosaicists whose beautiful work adorns several private and public buildings in Rennes, the regional capital, from the early 20th century, and I wonder if there was a vogue for imitation, albeit someway amateurish, out in the backwoods...

The butcher's faded van has been delivering to our hamlet all the fifteen years we've been living here, come rain or shine or snow.  They are noted for their sausages,

There's also a bakery, who do a good linseed loaf, and a reasonable baguette.

More doors and windows.

There is a small Catholic primary school, and a huge late 19th century church, a kind of quarter-sized cathedral, much frequented for funerals but I'm not sure for how much else. 

A visiting Dutch friend of our Dutch friend E, on visiting J when she first moved there, was somewhat horrified by the enormous crucified Jesus so close to the house.  We were all a bit non-plussed, since we hadn't really noticed.  I thought she must have been referring to the calvaire, the full crucifixion scene, sometimes complete with thieves, St John and a Mary or two, at the other end of the same street.  Protestant (with a small 'p') English to the core as I am, I struggle with full-on Catholic iconography as much as anyone, especially that from this time and place, when the Roman church, trying to seize back the ground lost during Enlightenment and Revolution, threatened by the imminence of the final separation between church and state which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, taking advantage of the fear and vulnerability in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the relative conservative religiousness of Brittany in particular, hammered home their message with grim, overblown, oversized edifices of pastiche architecture and overwrought art.  Yet it wasn't really till I took this photo that I noticed the crucifix that had given our Dutch visitor the heebie-jeebies.  

I've never in fact been inside the church here, and don't have any great wish to, it never seems very accessible except when there's a funeral on anyway, I'm not sure where the main entrance even is.  But I enjoyed finding some shapes and corners to enjoy on the outside.

Not featuring in any pictures, there is a popular bar run by a very out gay couple (one of whom also runs the hairdressers, I think), sometimes helped by their retired parents. Sometimes in the summer they set up a bar in an open garage out the back, spread some sand on the pavement, put out some deckchairs and potted palms and make it into Hénon plage; up the hill is an English-run B&B and a restaurant; and down the hill a little a monstrous bright green shed of a sports centre.  There is a very plain but purpose built theatre for the local amateur dramatic group, also quite popular, where I spent possibly one of the most excruciating evenings of my life, which I have (briefly) described here before and have no wish to re-live again. It is also noteworthy as the home of the dechétèrie.

There is also a house which looks like it was converted from an old garage perhaps with this over the door, of which I can make no sense whatever.

And because it is really a very small place, on a hillside, with no main roads leading to it, everywhere there are field and open country at the end of the road.  And the are plots of ground and old farm-ish buildings everywhere.  In one there were some intensely illuminated cabbages, with the frost still on them in places,

and stems like giant lolling caterpillars.

And from another, a dove watched me from the winter branches of a walnut tree, and, and this was the best thing really to be seen there, a charm of perhaps a dozen or more goldfinches rose up from the leeks and groundsel and chickweed like so many tinkling enamelled bells on invisible strings.

They were really too fast for my camera; the sidelong shots which showed their yellow wing bars failed to focus quickly enough, but I caught one or two enough to show their crimson, audacious faces before they whirled up and off again.

So there we are, Hénon, a somewhat unlovely place, but not altogether an uninteresting one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Little to report...

... except today I ate a tangerine,

or perhaps it was a clemenvilla.

 I think it was. I don't think tangerines exist any more.

And now the sun has shone for three whole days.

The former event is not unusual, the latter is.

That's all for now.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bitter greens from a fallow field

Bricolins.  I've bought these greens, or something like them, from a local veg box scheme, and they can, it seems, still be had on the markets in this part of France, though I don't remember seeing them.  They are the spring shoots of field or feed cabbages, loose small leaves and sometimes the start of a flowering head.

The name is a curiosity, a hybrid false analogy perhaps, from the Italian-derived broccoli (sometimes they're called bricoli), and the French verb bricoler.  Bricolage now is a fairly respectable activity, and large retail outlets bear the word in their names, it's DIY, home improvements.  But it also has had the sense of rather desultory pottering, of cobbling something together from what's to hand, of making do perhaps in a rather shoddy way.  The grasping peasant family in Georges Sand's Miller of Angibault is called Bricolin, and it carries the sense of shabbiness and skimping, although perhaps there's a cabbage stalk connection too, and casual farm labourers were also sometimes called bricolins.

And as a foodstuff, these greens really are much to do with making do, with using what meagre resources come to hand in a lean time, even to resorting to raiding the cows' fodder to supplement one's winter diet.  One of the few recipes I've found for them comprises not much more than the chopped greens, potatoes, water and some butter, if you're lucky, or else lard.

They're also known, in Gallo anyway, which is the old dialect of these parts, Breton wasn't spoken here, as guernissons, I can't find much out about that, except Gallo seems to contain a lot of words beginning gue-.

The local farmers are planting more feed cabbages these days to supplement the lack of nutrients in the junk-food-for-cows which is maize, since destroying rainforest savannah a mile-a-minute by buying imported soya is getting more expensive. A small step in the right direction I suppose though it doesn't quite constitute reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. So there are plenty to be found; these ones however were even more scarcity food, or playing at it anyway, as I do, since they were foraged not from a planted field but from self-seeded wildings in a fallow field just up the road.  I'd picked a few before and they'd been good, usually mixed with other greens, but these proved to be uncomfortably bitter, and even the addition of balsamic vinegar, sugar and salt couldn't offset that enough to make them pleasant on their own, even to me, and I quite like bitter. Tom, who isn't a bitter man, couldn't eat them.  I'm afraid I'm something of an intolerant and unreasonable solipsist about people's taste preferences if they aren't the same as mine.  I regard Tom's rejection of a number of foodstuffs as being bitter as a wilful refusal to grow up and train his palate (children naturally reject bitter tastes to avoid toxicity, which is why they won't eat their greens), as well as being inconsistent since he enjoys burnt sausages.  

This coincided with Rouchswalwe's post about Brussels sprouts (or Rosenköhlchen as they are delightfully called in German) and the comments it raised about taste.  Bearing in mind my aforesaid unreasonable solipsism, I am sceptical about the 'supertaster' idea, and I certainly hope no one ever tells my step-grandchildren Benj and Emily about it or they will feel justified in continuing to allow never so much as green pea to pass their lips on the grounds that they are supertasters and anything of vegetable origin is intolerably bitter to them, with the possible exception of garlic and potatoes, in the form of chips that is.  One of the best things about Brussels sprouts for me, which fully justifies their place in Christmas dinner, is that they make the best ever bubble-and-squeak, and this is what I did with the bricolins in the end.  Our friend the Quiet American once said it was a bafflement to him the things English people call food, either reducing the delicate and appetising such as 'sorbet' to something as dreary and off-putting as 'water ice', or rendering dishes completely opaque and droll by giving them such names as 'spotted dick' or 'bubble-and-squeak'.  

So for those who don't know, bubble-and-squeak is a development on the Irish colcannon (a lovely name) or, as I understand it, the Australian champ potato: leftover greens, primarily of the brassica type but can include leeks, onions, and indeed any other veg, even steamed nettles, mixed with mashed potato, then (and this is the point of departure from colcannon and champ) bound with an egg (optional, but a better result) and fried, at which point it presumably makes the sound which gives it its name.  The potato reduces the concentration of greensy bitterness, which can also be softened by the inclusion of sweeter elements such as carrot or parsnip - I included some pumpkin and chestnut puree in this instance.  Served with bacon (the ideal) the salt and savoury creates a further harmonious balance, and if you then wish for a touch of sour, fry some tomatoes or add a dash of ketchup or brown sauce on the side.  In fact acid is the taste group I had to work hardest at getting to like, wouldn't even eat mayo or anything with a taste of vinegar for years, and still regard Worcestershire sauce as a culinary thug.  But after long practice of including small amounts of sharp against other contrasting flavours to offset them, I have reached the point where I can eat gherkins straight out of the jar with pleasure, though I still prefer the sweet-and-sour ones to the just plain sour.

I still wouldn't be able to get Tom to eat it, so bubble-and-squeak aux bricolins is portioned out and in the freezer.