Thursday, October 23, 2014

Strange fruit

Woe is me,

a surfeit of quinces.  It's that time of year again.  Our friends have a quince tree, and Japonica bushes besides. In their early days here they hankered for and planted one of these most beautiful, elegant and archaic of orchard trees, and greeted the first few fruits with delight, but now we are submerged in the things, as well as quince jelly, paste, membrillo, even chutney.  We wonder what else one can possibly do with them, dine on slices of them with mince eaten with a runcible spoon?  Not very promising, though Nigel Slater did yield a recipe involving putting them in a stuffing for lamb with bulgar wheat, which he said had the advantage of getting rid of a couple of them, so he must have been in the same boat. But lamb here is expensive, and unless you go towards Mont St Michel, fairly indifferent, we seldom buy it, and Tom doesn't like bulgar. 

Fruit gluts here are often something of a problem, since we don't do dessert much, and beyond the odd slice of toast with marmalade, if we do have jam I'm afraid we rather like it red or purple with a bit of chewiness, so all the jellies soother than the creamy curd in various shades of gold and pink, pretty though they are, tend to sit around a bit. We seek out savoury applications, but these don't really use a lot, and we rather like our ham plain with a slick of mustard and our cheese plain with a glass of wine. Fruit liqueurs are a fairly safe bet and usually get drunk some time over the winter (as may we) but we still have some of last year's quince ratafia, not bad, made with the tail end of a bottle of rum, some very cheap and sweet Muscat de Samos and a bottle of Lidl vodka, and something similar may happen to these in the end.

Yet I can never refuse them, if only because of their heady perfume, and that they make me feel as if I'm living in a mediaeval tapestry. Our friends don't seem to learn either; the Quiet American, typically beguiled by all things Old World and quaint, and intrigued by my experiments with scrumped medlars a few years ago (gosh but it makes me sad going over old blog posts, snows of yesteryear and all that, and always reminders of loved and lost ones...), is still making noises about planting a tree, so if we all live long enough hereabouts we'll be wondering what to do with a surfeit of medlars, which sounds very Shakespearian.

No glut of pumpkins this year, these two were the total of my crop. I've vowed never again to grow the big watery, tasteless rouge d'étampes things again, but a few more butternut squash wouldn't go amiss.   Tom professes not to like these either, but they can very easily be roasted and slipped into our soups and stews without too much objection, and I appreciate them greatly.  We had a couple of third-hand samples of other people's surplus though, so we won't go short of our beta-carotene.

The final real fruiting oddity though, was a mysterious plant that seeded itself in the back of a flower bed. I kept meaning to pull it up, assuming it was a nightshadey sort of weed, but when I went to do so, it had expanded considerably, and on closer inspection turned out to be an edible physalis plant.

It bears very small boldly marked flowers, which all kinds of bees find irresistible, but which don't seem to turn into fruit so are presumably the male flowers, and an abundance of the lantern cased, cherry sized fruits.

I can't imagine how the plant was seeded here, I buy them occasionally but we eat them all up, and certainly don't throw them in the compost or spit the pips out or give them to the birds. Something sometimes  gets to the ones on the plant before I do however, and I find empty husks, so perhaps a sharp-eyed bird found one somewhere and deposited the seed in the evolution honoured way.

We've eaten quite a number of them ripe already, but the plant continues to spread and sprawl and make more and more green fruit.  A friend who grew up in southern Africa says they grow like weeds on verges and rubbish tips and anywhere you like there, and one year she grew some here and the summer and autumn were long and warm enough to yield a good picking. I can't imagine these will come to much now though, although I've tried to train the stems up the hedge to get them most sun and light, and the eager bees are determinedly braving the October chill to bustle round the flowers. I wonder if I snip the biggest ones off and leave them in their husks on a warm windowsill they'll be viable.  Unlike many of the exotic fruits which have become fashionable of recent years for their decorative beauty and bizarre shapes, (star fruit? bleugh!) they have a unique, intense and quite delicious flavour which just shouts vitamin C at you. Standing with bare legs of an October morning and biting into a cold one reminds me I'm alive, and glad of it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Paris - fish and chips and Père Lachaise and orange oil and music.

Just back from our rather flying visit to Paris, where we stayed in this dear little apartment in the 11th arrondissement. It's not right in the centre so a trip to Notre Dame or the Marais or museums really requires a metro trip, or a long walk, as it was our legs ached fit to bust from walking and climbing metro stairs (we observed that there really aren't as many fat people in Paris as elswhere, including Brittany, and speculated that this might well be because of all the exercise they get taking the metro).  But it's an interesting area, just at the right point of gentrification, a good mixture of the authentically scruffy, with little businesses selling buckets and brooms and Lebanese food and very unfashionable fashions, or offering to mend your shoes and clothes and scooters, alongside organic cafés and timber-lined shops selling Japanese teapots and perfumed tea to put in them. Downstairs from the flat was stand for the free Velib bikes a newish restaurant so popular and fashionable that it had no sign board and only the smallest single menu sheet taped to the door, was packed out lunchtime and evening with very sympa looking Bobo folk (well I like them anyway, they have intense expressions, where natural fibres in nice colours and let their hair go grey, what's not to like? No, don't answer that...), and served fannied up versions of tête de veau and whelks.  

We weren't brave enough to try either the bikes or the calf's head. We did however, spaced out with fatigue at lunchtime of our first day owing to a ridiculously early start, find a lovely bar-restaurant which provided us with a square plate of fish and chips and a tall glass of ginger beer, which was great. Yes, I know, I see your eyes rolling, Brits in Paris seeking out fish and chips and ginger beer, how naff and parochial. But I'll have you know les fish & chips are très branchés in these parts these days, especially in Paris (though there's a good place down by the port in St Brieuc which does them too), and anything, especially any drink, flavoured with ginger is such a rarity and I crave it so that if it's on offer anywhere I snap it up. And I have to say, the French having conceded that perhaps, just perhaps, the execrable culinary - and indeed general - taste of the British might have yielded up one exception worthy of being adopted in the form of fish and chips, they really do cook it very well indeed. The chips are thick and succulent as they should be, none of your greasy little matchstick frîtes/French fries, but are just that bit crisper than from many an English chippy, and the fish batter is light and fresh. These came with a chilled purée of petit pois which wasn't quite like a tin of marrowfats but was fine anyway, and a really unctuous big helping of tartar sauce which was like a proper accompaniment not just a sad little blob of condiment.  I am a restaurant critic manquée; spare me your lectures on how I should have gone for the whelks and calf's head.

The area is also adjacent to the renowned Père Lachaise cemetery, to which we strolled after sleeping off the fish and chips, ginger beer and early start in the apartment's lovely comfortable white bed. 

I didn't take many photos here, or anywhere in fact, since I wanted mainly to relax ans enjoy, and in the cemetery there is so much that once you start you wouldn't stop, and it must be one of the most photographed graveyards in the world anyway, so it would be impossible to avoid cliché. Neither did we seek out any particular graves or tombs, and gave Jim Morrison's and Oscar Wilde's a very wide berth, except we did relent and look up Héloise and Abélard (I was happy to see they were listed thus, rather than the other way around, on the plan).

It's uncertain, it seems, whether either or both of their remains are indeed there, but it's an iconic monument, its history reflecting the overlay of interpretation and appropriation of the story and persistence of the myth. I was moved by the solitary, quietly beautiful young girl who stood looking at it, taking a few photographs then seeming simply to meditate.

It was a perfect moment to be there, on a warm, golden late afternoon in October, the low sun and long shadows softening and enhancing the melancholy, while office workers relaxed with books and newspapers on the benches, and mischievous looking black crows stalked us, hopping from tombstone to tombstone. When we came out we stopped and had a beer in the bar of the small hotel next door, and the barman started cleaning the old-fashioned machine for making orange pressé, and we were enveloped in a perfume of orange oil, which was a small piece of unexpected, memorable magic.

The place was also only a few metro stops from the Cité de la Musique, our principal objective for being there. On one side of the parc de la Villette, towards the northern edge of the city. We did a reccy with a visit to the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie earlier in the day, which was OK and you can't really go wrong with a planetarium show as far as we're concerned, but the place did seem a bit big and harsh and scary, and it was the only place we went where we felt the people working there weren't very friendly or helpful. Coming up onto the area in front of the concert hall, though, with older Paris buildings on one side and fountains and pavement lighting and a crowd of other people all going to see Jordi Savall, was much more conducive.

Photos were not really allowed in the concert hall; I took these discreetly then put the camera away for the performance. A few people broke the rule with their phone cameras during the final applause, but they were a very well-behaved audience, which was one of the incidental pleasures of being there, not being annoyed by camera flashes and fidgeting and inappropriately timed clapping (Tom's bugbear). 

The concert was truly wonderful; I can't find any reviews of it yet in French or English, but there's a very knowledgeable one of the same - or very similar - programme they performed at Edinburgh earlier this year here, though even that reviewer didn't know what the huge, booming Turkish battle horns were properly called. Its theme being War and Peace, specifically during the century from 1614 (Savall created the programme originally for Barcelona to mark the tricentenary of the end of the War of the Spanish Succession), so there were naturally a lot of fanfares and praise to God for being on your side when people won and laments when they didn't. But the two and a bit hours flew by for me in a haze of delight, and the acoustics in the hall were so good (and the music quite bold and clear) so Tom could hear and enjoy it unusually well, and the surtitling above the stage relating the events each piece marked were clear and concise. The in the first encore (perhaps Arvo Part, I'm afraid I couldn't understand Jordi's announcement of it in French) the voices and instruments seemed to blend and ascend in a viscous emulsion of beauty, and when for the second they performed an adapted choral version of a section of the Catalan Sybil, the tears flowed. What images return...

What I was able to catch with the zoom was the percussion stuff belonging to the old wizard Pedro Estevan, including his trademark big green drum, and as your reward for getting this far with this great long self-satisfied post all about what a lucky so-and-so I am, here's a video of him playing a 17th century Spanish piece with Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras' daughter Arianna on the harp, where she looks just like her mother and the two of them look like Merlin and Nimue.


And otherwise, we didn't go to any museums or anything, but we had breakfast by the Seine and went to the new Birkenstock shop and got Tom some sandals, an achievement of which I am quite proud, but that's another story.

Lilies in the apartment, which smelled heavenly.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Woodhenge by the island of Sterec

The Bay of Morlaix from where we stay with its many rocks and islands and changing tones always reminds me of something Heather Dohollau said in a poem about seeing the Bréhat archipelago for the first time, that it was 'like a Leonardo or a Patinir', so that I half-expect to see a wonderfully out-of scale St Christopher half a mile high and confounding all perspective, striding across the water towards us.

We set off from the door at Kerbiriou, and for the first time walked around the entire edge of the small peninsular, skirting round the cairn of Barnenez, which is its main claim to fame. We did once pay admission and visit the cairn, but I'm afraid that, as with many prehistoric sites and monuments, it doesn't do a great deal for me. I have difficulty connecting, perhaps the imagination required to fill in the gaps is beyond me, but also the amount of artifice and making it up of those charged with preserving them sometimes seems unconvincing.  Tom, who's done a bit of archaeology, grumbles rather about the French tendency to rebuild and reconstruct, but in fact in many later sites, such as mediaeval castles, I quite enjoy this, though I appreciate it might not always be quite authentic, and deny one the pleasure of ruins.

So anyway, this time we didn't go to the cairn, but followed the coastal path. At the top of the peninsular is the island of Sterec, about which I can find nothing on the web in English or French but images, which rather reflects how delightfully unknown and unfêted this whole small corner beyond the cairn is.  It's one of those part-time islands, like the Île de Callot, which you can walk to at low tide, but I'm not sure what's there when you get there, and anyway on this occasion we couldn't.

But no matter, because what I found at the bottom of the steps and the top of the causeway, filled me with more joy than any reconstructed bit of prehistory and quite as much as a gallery full of Patinirs: posts.

I suggested Tom find himself a rock and sit down; I'd be a while.

I don't really know what this line of posts was for, or how long it had been there, or anything about it. Our hosts might have known, but I didn't think to ask them.

If its function was to hold back land fall, it seemed to have been replaced by this cage of pebbles.  This kind of structure we've observed on a much grander scale filled with large grade aggregate holding up road building in quite precipitous places.  I've wondered if the metal will ever corrode, bringing down concrete, bypass and all, but decided it's not my problem.

They probably aren't all that old, but sea and weather had done their work and they seem quite ancient and mysterious, full of potential but ungraspable meaning, like a woodhenge or processional alignment,

Unknown walkers and pilgrims had left their mark on them, in the form of those ubiquitous balanced stone towers

solitary mini-menhirs,

and precisely chosen pebbles placed in and across the gaps between them.

They were studded and pierced and infibulated with metalwork,

tattooed by rust with shamanic faces, 

 and carved by the elements into landscapes within a landscape,

 Tom was very patient. Finally I made a pebble tower of my own and we walked on.

Even more pictures on a web album here.