Sunday, May 24, 2015

Scapes, Balbec, octopods

Three things which have brought much pleasure.

Leek scapes. Our retired farmer usually brings me a bunch of leek plants late in the summer, which he has grown from seed and has spare of. I've usually got a bed free for them by that time, the broad bean patch is good having been well tilled and nitrogen-fixed, so they're a useful and appreciated resource through the winter. This last lot I must have planted at the right phase of the moon or something, as they grew well, stayed rust-free and went on well into spring without bolting. However, they did start throwing out these rather elegant flower buds eventually. At the back of my mind was the idea that perhaps these were usable, so I looked them up, found various suggestions, and that they are known as scapes, so I threw one into the soup one evening as a test, and found that it was good, so gathered a whole bunch and steamed them on their own.

I'd long heard about leeks being known as poor man's asparagus, but not fully understood why. I've had good results steaming the small ones and dressing them with vinaigrette (one made with hazelnut oil with a few toasted chopped hazels on top is pretty sublime), but these flower heads really do have a texture and flavour which easily rivals asparagus. It would be well worthwhile to let the plants bolt every year; in fact it would almost be worthwhile just to be able to use the word 'scapes'.


Just finished the second of Patrick O-Brian's Aubrey Maturin series, Post-Captain, now fully hooked, and glad to know that, if I'm spared (as my granny used to say) I have the rest of my life for the remaining eighteen and a half. I enjoyed the first very much but found I couldn't always quite see the ships for the rigging. The third is on order, which posed a small dilemma as I actually find I especially enjoy reading them on Kindle, where somehow I obtained the first two for some kind of promo-price, because the on-board dictionary, though frequently confounded by some of the more technical sea-going vocabulary, is useful - I rarely, I can say without bragging, need a dictionary when reading novels, but P O'B is an exception, - as is the facility to search for previous references. However, the Kindle prices from now on are more than I'm prepared to pay for an e-books when I can buy second hand more cheaply, so print on paper it is.

Anyway, one small thing that made me almost squeal with self-satisfied joy was when, late in the novel, seeking a target on the French coast on which to exercise the Lively's guns, Aubrey decides to lay waste to the small battery just off 'the little port of Balbec'. Unlike most of the French locations mentioned, Balbec does not in fact exist, save in the pages of Proust, where it is the chic seaside town where Marcel goes with his grandmother, and falls in love with Albertine, among other things. Not only is it gratifying to one's vanity to spot such an arch kind of literary joke, but I also rather enjoy the conundrum of Balbec's existing in Napoleonic times as a little fishing port, then a hundred years later in Proust's time having grown into a famous resort, while O'Brian re-conjures it eighty years on from that as it was a hundred years before... etc etc. You don't really need science fiction to play about with the space-time continuum, any fiction can do it.

(This observation has also enabled me to help rekindle momentarily, and gain some small kudos among, a small Ravelry discussion group of formidable women amongst whom I am a mere tyro, who have put down their knitting mostly to read the entire canon of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, sometimes more than once. The group calls itself 'The Lesser of Two Needles')    


Knitting: Sumer is icumen in, and this tends to mean either cotton knitting, which I have some of on the go but which you can quickly tire of, as can the tendons, or socks, which are light and portable. A belated present for my old friend Glenn, who when he visited with partner and dogs earlier this year, was bearing a very delicate and interesting small tattoo of an octopus, which he had copied from an ancient Greek vase painting, on his upper arm. This put me in mind of the time, some twenty-five years ago, when he and I were traipsing round the Peloponnese in the tracks of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and we lodged for some days (the next bus out was the other side of the weekend) in a small coastal hotel, and every evening we asked the middle-aged spinster daughter of the house what was for dinner, and she showed us the pots in the kitchen, and every night she showed us the same pot of stewed 'octopoooos', so that by the third night octopus tentacles and the suckers on them had parted company and the latter were floating about on the top.

So, octopods being something of a theme, I made him these socks, for a biggish birthday, a bit late.

They are based on this pattern, but only really the chart and the general style, the helix knitting being somewhat beyond me. In spite of being quite fine wool, and the fairly tight stranded knitting, they came out rather large (they're on my feet in the second photo), but he says he has been wearing them as slipper socks, and will try them inside wellingtons too.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Paris: the heron in the tunnel

There is a heron which lives in the tunnel of the St Martin canal underneath Paris. It has taken up residence in there every winter for seven years, and flies silently ahead of the boat as it navigates the tunnel in and out of the lights from the boat and from the light wells. The video is at half-speed, and uploaded in HD, so best to watch full screen or really the bird is not much more than a speck. I tried to use one of Jordi's and Montserrat's Sybils as soundtrack, because it seemed as though the creature had a kind of chthonic, sybilline quality, but it was heavy and portentous and all wrong, and I ended up using a fluffy bit of Debussy I found on the computer's sample music, which is much better.

It was one of the most delightful things that happened while we were there. Almost as much so as going out on our last evening, our wedding anniversary, when a great fierce shower of rain came down, and we sheltered under a café awning and watched it tear down the river while the opposite bank was in bright sunshine, then the sun came out and we crossed the Pont Neuf, and I invited Tom to buy me some earrings in a small jeweller's shop to fix the memory. He was wearing a jacket and tie and I was wearing a longish green dress I've had about 20 years - all the time we've been married in fact - which is altogether a fairly unusual sight, and we only looked ever-so-slightly like a superannuated version of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and as we were walking down the Quai des Orfèvres, an American lady coming the other way smiled broadly at us and said to her companion for us to hear 'Don't they look so good together!' Then we heard pretty music in the Sainte Chapelle, and I cried at Pachelbel's Canon and Tom cried at the singer singing Schubert and Messiaen, then we repaired to the Orangerie on the Ile St Louis where I dipped bread in Tom's oeufs meurette and without being asked they brought two spoons and lit a candle in my apple crumble and caramel Berthillet ice cream, and assured us a lot of people ordered two courses and shared the starter and dessert. We ended the evening unbelievably tired, full and happy.


There are still one or two more posts' worth of pictures from Paris, but in fact I find I'd rather like just to post about some home-based stuff, which is good too, and perhaps have a bit of a break, so perhaps I'll come back to them later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paris: la Villette and the Jules Verne carousel.

The park at la Villette, where we finished up after the morning's boat trip, with all it's big open airy spaces, elevated walkways, concert halls, prestigious science museum, is a bold attempt at making a really generous public, cultural open space outside of the very centre of Paris, and must be much appreciated by many. It's not difficult to get to, and has so much to offer, yet for some reason I don't find it quite sympathetic, so much about it rather gives me agarophobia. Not all, I loved the Cité de la Musique in the evening, not only the hall itself but all its interior and exterior peripherals, but it seems to me that the best bits are where they've ended up enclosing and hiving off parcels and elements of the larger space into more intimate smaller ones. 

The adjacent neighbourhood, on the Pantin side anyway, is in no way ugly or bleak or threatening, the people are quite varied, some smart prosperous professional looking types alongside artisan-ish people and some fairly mixed urban youth. But it's rather dreary, big streets and buildings without being imposing, lacking in much variety and interest and ever so slightly, well, lairy. It probably isn't really, but that was our perception of it, after quite a long morning, looking for somewhere to have lunch in a limited time, not wanting too much, or much of what was on offer. There were endless scruffy sushi places, which seem to be the default low budget eateries and takeaways everywhere in Paris now, and a fair bit of couscous, which we're not great fans of, and a pricey shiny office type restaurant further towards the Buttes-Chaumont, which is another area I'd quite like to explore one day. In the end we found a modest bistro down a side street with a relaxed and varied clientèle which seemed to reflect the local population, Tom had a chicken tajine with some recognisable vegetables in it and frites instead of couscous, and I had a beef brochette with very juicy chunks of steak and proper home made creamy-crispy potatoes lyonnaises which were very good . All of which was far more than we meant to eat so we didn't want much dinner that evening. The owner was rather bumptious, a bit of a wide-boy, and teased and joshed us in rapid-fire ways I couldn't pick up on quickly enough, but the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly.

So, we didn't take many pictures (lunch was tasty but not the kind you stand on your chair and set up the lighting to take a photo of). However, on the way back and waiting for the boat, my attention was drawn to the Jules Verne carousel. There were several fairground things, a swing ride and a pêche aux canards ( a thing where you try to hook up ducks for prizes, I think), but none of them were in action, presumably because of the wet weather that morning. I wondered if the Jules Verne roundabout was something unique and perhaps antique, but on researching it, it seems that these carousels are everywhere, there are big and small ones in Nantes, Montpellier, Laval... there is even a company that will rent them out to you in various sizes. While in the style of early 20th century fairground attractions, they are usually modern, for obvious safety reasons. In fact I do remember seeing them aound now, but didn't really take note of the theme: the actual ride-on elements, covered up on this occasion against the weather, as well as the classic horses and other animals, are (loosely) taken from Jules Verne stories. There are steam trains and ships and biplanes and early motor cars and bicycles, and always Captain Nemo's submarine, a Montgolfier balloon and a moon rocket. And always around the canopy there are painted vignettes of scenes from the books, and also of Paris and of other world landmarks.

Those from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea seemed to be especially favoured; it was fun trying to spot and remember the references.

I used to enjoy Jules Verne's books as a child, and liked these quirky, fantastical little paintings very much, wondering about the person who executed them with such care and enthusiasm, what we used to call a commercial artist, I suppose, the kind of painter in a British context who would have painted pub signs.

In amongst them, around the central shaft, were also these relief Melusines, I'm not sure what, if anything, they have to do with Jules Verne, they seem to have rather more of the traditional fairground about them.

The rain cleared, and this passed the time until the boat returned.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Paris: cruising the Seine and the Canal St Martin

Our first morning in Paris; I had already booked a boat trip (I do love a boat trip, we collect them) which not only took in the section of river from the Quai d'Orsay past the two islands, but also joined and travelled the length of the Canal St Martin as far as the outlying park at la Villette - which was where we went last October to see Jordi Savall at the Cité de la Musique.

Because of a combination of meteorological, geographical and tidal phenomena the Seine was exceptionally high, something which was rather a source of wonder for the time we were there:

Trees stood straight up out of the water,

and steps led down,

to disappeared quays from which boats should have been boarded,

and people waded out to stand in the river under submerged trees on quays which weren't there, which was probably rather dangerous. (Tom took the last four photos). So when we came to the lock at the beginning of the canal, which led onto the bassin de l'Arsenal, the three metres we should have had to lift the boat was reduced to a scant half metre, and on the way back down to perhaps thirty cm (that's a foot to us imperialists). 

The trip was run by an outfit called Paris-canal - that's to their English version web-page, and the English is as funny and charming and friendly as that of their tour guide, a young chap called Nicholas. He and the boat driver, Dominique, were the only crew, and a very good one. As we waited for the water to pump through the nine locks and raise us the twenty-seven metres of the ascent, Dominique nipped down to the galley (I know all the nautical terms, me) and brought up a couple of big thermos flasks of coffee and hot water and served everyone coffee and tea in plastic cups for a euro a throw (no milk, a big box of sugar) which was very welcome as it was a chilly wet morning.

Through the marina of the bassin, which housed many smart craft of all kinds, including this one whose name pleased me,

and we entered the marvel which is the tunnel, which runs two km under the place de la Bastille. The oldest parts date from the very earliest years of the nineteenth century, there was no means of artificial lighting and so the whole length is punctuated by wells, through which the vegetation of the park above filters a strange greenish light:

Emerging from the tunnel, the boat winds its way up through the canal neighbourhoods, under the graceful little iron footbridges,

where the inhabitants loitered to watch the boat go by, beneath and beside canalside trees in their spring foliage (including one of the squares of Paulownias in the previous post)

past attractive domestic architecture, including the Hotel du Nord, glimpsed momentarily near to this elegant art nouveau building:

and of course up through its nine locks, with all their trappings and accoutrements and accumulated growth and excrescences

Later this year, Nicholas told us, the canal will undergo its periodic draining, to clean and dredge it and check that its ancient, largely wooden, structure is still holding up. At that time, he said with relish, many things are found: old sofas, fridges, bicycles, and the police open and close many enquiries...

If you're ever in Paris, and looking for a sightseeing thing to do, especially one which saves your legs a bit and offers shelter from the elements while still providing movement and variety, I can't recommend the canal tour too highly. There's so much to see and to learn in areas just a bit off the core tourist track, a slow green vein into the heart of the city.  The pace of travel on the canal is uniquely conducive to discursive talk, the telling of stories, and observation of detail both in the long and the near view, to distracting and getting distracted. Nicholas the guide, as well as being charming and easy on the eye, was an enthusiastic source of much knowledge and anecdote on a great variety of subjects: history and natural history, art and architecture, boats and water and the science and workings of them, from the volumes of water under us in the Seine in flood or the raising of the lock, to the time the Mona Lisa spent in an apartment in the Hôpital St Louis quarter, the high number of royal finance ministers who met their end on the two-tier gibbet of Montfaucon, quotes from Arletty, or drawing attention to the tiny freshwater mussels, a sign of clean water, clustered in nooks and crannies of the lock walls. He was happy to chat and answer questions and explain things in more detail, and told us happily how he loved his job, being in the fresh air, meeting people, sharing the canal with them...

In fact, we liked it so much that rather than duck down into the metro when we arrived at the end of the trip, we decided to come back on the boat too, even though it meant killing time, and having lunch, for a couple of hours in la Villette, which wasn't too bad really.

By the afternoon, the sun had come out and there were far more people on board, which was interesting for people watching. The experience of descending the locks was quite a different one, more open with more of a direct sense of the gradient and flow we were traversing. 

All in all, a good time was had by all. 

(Thanks to Tom, who took quite a lot of these photos, 1 - 4, 11,12, 14, 17, 22, I think, and the last one, obviously!)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Paris: purple trees

I've seen paulownias before, but only really as single specimens, now and then, and of course when they aren't in flower one isn't particularly likely to notice them. The experience of rounding a corner and finding a whole square of trees which appeared to have been painted purple was a new one, which seemed to add a fairy whimsicality to the city.


It was pointed out to us that they are really only in this state for a week or so of the year, so we were lucky to be there at just that moment. Which might be a(nother) good reason to go to Paris in the first week of May every year.

To look at foxglove trees in bloom
Twenty springs is little room

As Housman didn't say, but Haussmann might have done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Paris: postcard shots and other clichés

There's a kind of inverted snobbery which I'm as guilty of as anyone, which says you shouldn't take the postcard pictures - why not buy the postcards if that's what you want? Yet there's a reason why those views are so well-known ('iconic' is another cliché too far, why do I beat myself up so?) 

It's a pleasure to capture Notre Dame from the river, where to all appearances she is solitary, uncluttered and serene,

or the arches of the other bridges receding  through those of the Pont Neuf.

The rotonde de la Villette  is less well known, but picture postcard handsome all the same, as are the gardens of the Palais Royal

There are other naff and outré things which are perhaps better avoided, but yet are difficult to resist, such as photographing cute urban bird life,

especially in conjunction with naked statuary

or one's own feet:

 Tom's and mine, weary and relaxing by the Palais Royal fountains. But then this does seem to me to encapsulate a happy memory, and Tom's Birkenstocks are downright cool.

We really would draw the line at selfie sticks though, which should be not only considered anti-social but also made universally illegal.

More anon.