All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Oysters and 'r's.

Here somes summer, and the oysters of Arcachon are off the menu again. I forget will either be poisonous algae or poisonous effluent, but at least down there it won't be radioactivity.

Still, there are plenty of other alternatives, as long as you keep an eye on your map of leaky coastal nuclear power stations while you are making your choice. Pretty safe with Cancale and Belen, nice round traditional oysters from Brittany, and anything down the Vendee coast., though these are the craggy Portugese oyster......just keep clear of Normandy's offerings with the Cap la Hogue power station dribbling goodness knows what into the waters. I wonder if President Sarkozy will be offering President Obama Normandy oysters when they meet for the D Day commemoration, or whether the U.S. secret service will veto the suspect offerings?

I used to enjoy oysters when in the U.K., though the price of Colchester natives even then would make your hair curl if you bought them in Wheelers. I used to buy them from the oyster stall on Mersea Island in those far off days when a cheesecloth blouse on a young woman in summer would bring about a fit of absentmindedness on the part of the chap selling his wares when it came to counting the oysters he was handing over. These days I expect you could strip down to your Agent Provocateur knickers without any effect on the price or weight.

Initially, France put me off the oyster. It was the fault of the fruit de mer, that stomach turning plateau of cooked shellfish of uncertain age and origin combined with living things in shells awaiting their fate at the hat pin provided for each customer. Having noted that the incidence of food poisoning went up when the local supermarket reduced its intake of shellfish from twice to once a week, I went off shellfish in a big way.

My repugnance was not overcome by the French New Year thrash....the Sylvester. Oysters are obligatory at these events which are great in every other way and French hospitals cancel all staff leave in order to be ready for the rush of the 'oyster knife through the palm of the hand' injuries , resulting from opening oysters at speed while having drink taken. I wondered whether it was because the craggy Portugese oyster was more difficult to open than the horseshoe type, but I have come to the conclusion that is probably the amount of 'drink taken' that is the deciding factor.

Then the family came down for the summer and went to the seaside for the day, to a resort they used to go to when the children were young, returning with a basket of craggy oysters. We sat outside at the wooden table perched precariously on the slope under the trees and ate them with relish...they were plump, juicy and a far cry from the miserable specimens of the winter months. I was reconverted to oysters!

It made me New Year the shops and stalls are awash with panniers of oysters, collected especially for the winter is the major selling point of the year. How long have these oysters been sitting about in the viviers, or holding tanks, let alone in transport and stacked up in the loading bays of the supermarket delivery systems? An ex neighbour of mine, a retired Paris bus driver of a careful turn of mind, told me that when he buys oysters for the New Year he insists that the panniers are opened in front of him and that he tries the contents. He had been disappointed too often before starting this practice.

'They don't like it, but, damn it, it's my money I'm spending!'

I wonder, too, if, as well as the freshness factor, the feeding is better in the summer months. A friend goes down to the islands off the Atlantic coast in the summer and comes back laden with buckets of wild oysters which he distributes lavishly...they are a real treat, but even the shop bought oyster is now firmly back on my summer menu, whether it is clear, milky, or, in the case of the oysters from Marennes, green! And I don't have to wonder if there is an 'r' in the month. It doesn't matter!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Is it food to die for?

A friend is arriving shortly, and I am looking forward to the Red Cross parcel she will be bringing. The Marmite, cheddar cheese and fresh indian spices are keenly anticipated, as are the golden syrup and suet. The French may make rude remarks about English cuisine, but I've never known any of them refuse a second helping of treacle tart, while the home made Christmas puddings are now not just accepted, but requested!

The big problem will be finding somewhere to have lunch. These days, I have given up going out for pleasure as I have been disappointed so often, but friends and family have the kind instinct to take out their hosts as a relief from the cooking and washing up. Give me the washing up any day over the overpriced and sub standard offerings which are the norm in my locality!
First, you have to beware of the places that announce their menu by price not by what they propose to serve. One encounter with a cow intestine sausage was enough to ensure I never entered such a place again....if they are too idle to write out their menu it doesn't hold out too much hope for the cooking! Recommendations have to be treated with caution.....a full plate cares much more weight in local opinion than the quality of what is served on it and I don't fancy tired charcuterie and salad leaves washed in bleach solution all bought in from the local supermarket. I can grate vegetables and buy cold meat myself...I can cook a steak the way I like it rather than having it ruined by a chef with his own ideas on what the customer should want and I can have a decent bottle of wine rather than paying over the odds for rubbish and risk being breathalysed on the way home. A place has to be good to overcome all these obstacles and, at the moment, I know of only one.

There is such a place in a tourist town some forty minutes' drive away and it is a great place to take visitors. On a riverside street there is a shabby courtyard surrounded by green painted railings where a brown door alongside leads you to a corridor with a toilet at the far end, a sink against the wall and another door into the bar itself. Here you have an authentic workman's caff of the 1920s, with its huge bar and mirrored display of bottles, while tables and bentwood chairs line the walls and battered iron tables lurk outside under faded umbrellas in the summer. The proprietor is now in his late seventies, a rotund, white haired gentleman in white overall, slippers and, in winter, woolly hat, who shuffles round to take the orders of his customers. The regulars are local workman and some surprisingly colourful ladies, but tourists get the same courteous attention, even if regulars on a limited lunch hour get the fastest service. He offers an unchanging menu...crudites to start, beetroot, potato salad, tomatoes and high class charcuterie - yes, I know what I said about being able to buy it myself - steak and chips, either bloody or just cooked - and I know what I said about cooks with their own ideas on steak - and the unchanging bottle of house red. Yes, I know I have just contradicted myself, but this place has one of the nicest atmospheres I know, and the chips are the best I have tasted outside Belgium. He was kind enough to tell me which brand of oil he uses and the chips on the home front have undergone a distinct improvement following his advice. The waitresses vary from visit to visit.....either delightful young things in exiguous clothing or a woman of a certain age with views on how her customers should behave. The house dog insinuates himself alongside your chair, the regulars help themselves to a drink from the bar as they chat over their newspapers and this is the only place in which, while waiting for a table, I have ever been given a drink on the house, or, come to that, discussed the merits of DAF cars.

There is only one problem....will he still be alive?

I have had far frostier receptions in my time. There is one hotel with restaurant where you are either welcomed with open arms or receive the cold shoulder depending on four elements...if you have been able to reserve in person AND have been lucky enough to meet the chef's dogs while so doing AND like dogs AND the dogs like you, then it is the arms. If not all of the above then it is the shoulder. At least, thinking it over, I can find nothing else to account for the difference. If I am invited by a dog approved person, all goes swimmingly from the moment that Madame - wife of chef - beams as you open the door to the moment that her husband emerges from his kitchen flanked by the dogs to accept the gratitude of his customers for what has been a superb meal. If invited by those not vetted by the dogs then either it is impossible to reserve a table, or if you have slipped through the net by getting the trainee receptionist who believes in encouraging trade then while the food is still superb Madame wants to rush you through your meal, sulks if you resist and the evening is enlivened by the slam of plates hitting the table. As it is a long way off, the necessity of making two trips, one to book and one to eat, ensures that I only go if invited by someone on the dogs' list who lives nearby.

The last expedition to a local restaurant was a sympathise with the Russians fighting on seventeen fronts when you've had this sort of experience. The site was pleasant, on decking over a lake, and the menu did not look too large to be authentic.....when it offers everything under the sun you know that the freezer and the microwave take the majority place in the kitchen. We ordered oysters. Word came from the kitchen that oysters were off. Monsieur et Mesdames did not realise that oysters had to be fresh, so they were not available, we were told, by a snooty young waitress who refused to respond to our French and insisted on using English. Since we had just seen them on sale in the local supermarket, we could only imagine that the staff were too idle to nip down and buy them. We ordered something else as a starter and ordered filet of salmon, fish gratin and steak as our main courses. The salmon was approaching raw, and the steak was an amalgam of gristle and fat, undercooked to the point of having just been defrosted in the microwave. Madame could not eat it, and asked for a doggy bag. The waitress decided at this point that she did not understand in either English or French, and the steak was whipped away. The pud was fine, in fact, assortment of desserts....but the coffee was rank. The waitress was no longer in attendance, being busy patronising another table of English customers, but we finally obtained the bill and were set to leave. Where was the doggy bag? Our waitress had gone incommunicado, so Madame invaded the kitchen, where the steak was lying on the table.....had it been forgotten or was there some hope among the staff that they could palm it off on some other customer? She demanded a bag, scooped up the steak, and we were away. That afternoon, the fish gratin made itself felt with a bout of food poisoning for Monsieur. We cooked the steak before giving it to the dog. He was all right.ri

Saturday, 2 May 2009

A breathless hush

Rural France has been very quiet since Thusday, April 30th. The predominant sounds are the click of the computer mouse and the cry of enraged triumph when the quarry is pinned down.

This beats any all action computer game hands down for excitement and emotion, and it is thanks to the European Union which has decided that, in the interests of transparency, all beneficiaries of the Common Agricultural Policy should be named.

Germany has failed to's not that long after the disruption of absorbing the old German Democratic Republic, after all....a row about which fat cats have their paws in the cream which is mostly paid for by the German public is not regarded as conducive to solidarity and fellow feeling in hard times.

One has a feeling that all the Greek, Roumanian and Bulgarian beneficiaries are related, probably to their agriculture ministers, but perhaps that is just how their names look to northern European eyes.

One knows, too, that the Queen has had her paws well buttered, but all of this pales in comparison with the emotion felt by a Frenchman able to confirm long held suspicions about his neighbour's finances.

By consulting the website

...which has just gone down, what a surprise!...

the French taxpayer, consumer and, vitally, neighbour can discover just who has had his or her snout in the trough and to what extent.

It is fascinating to learn that a chap up the road who has to my certain knowledge thirty milking goats and a shed full of ducks has raked in seventeen thousand euros in the last accounting year while steadfastly refusing to pay his wife a wage...nomatter what it says on the books...and leaving his house in the state it was in the 1930s where sanitation is concerned. It does account for his smart cars and vans, however.

Then there is the guy across the river. He has a few cattle, mostly to be found in my garden when the river is low enough for them to wade across, and a pig unit which seems to be subject to electrical faults every three years in which animals inevitably die and he inevitably collects insurance. He has received one hundred and four thousand euros. It accounts for his cars too.

The man who steals my ducks as an extension of his declared activity as a cattle farmer has trousered thirty four thousand euros. It accounts for his son's cars.

The French farmer is an unpopular figure abroad, seen as grasping, greedy, environmentally unfriendly and living high on the hog on the backs of European taxpayers and consumers. It may come as a surprise to learn that he is regarded like this in France, as well, except for European taxpayers, substitute French ones....they have no time to worry about the emotions of other European taxpayers. The figures pubished more or less discreetly in the newspapers have unleashed howls of fury in the comment columns and a great deal of earnest discussion at the level of the local bar.

According to my non farming neighbours, there are two aspects to the farmer's unpopularity ...his farming activites and his privileged position when it comes to taxation.

The farming activities are but all too well known. Pollution of wells and water courses by the over use of fertilizers, which now has to be cleaned up at the expense of the general taxpayer. Over use of insecticides which are rendering the countryside sterile....hardly a buzz in my blossoming fruit trees which once were alive with pollinators....and two fingers put up to beekeepers who have seen their hives and their livelihoods destroyed. Paid to sow inappropriate crops which demand irrigation to an extent that domestic water sources are threatened. Spreading his manure on the fields and not turning it in so that the stench overpowers the neighbourhood - I swear the guy with the ducks has a copy of my diary as it seems like every time I have friends to lunch in the summer he spreads his manure the day before and drives us off the terrace. The ability to blight the countryside with chicken concentration camps, silos and sheds, while the ordinary guy has to jump through the hoops of French planning regulations to change the colour of his shutters. There is a lovely village nearby, where the main streeet is all mellow golden limestone. At the end of the street, visible from the moment you drive into the village, is a silo of vast proportions painted a livid forest green. Just try painting your shutters that colour!

Never dare let your field to a farmer...with his nine year renewable leases and his right to first refusal should you wish to sell he is a blight on your property...let alone what he gets up to while he is renting.

It is the underpart of the iceberg that rouses most resentment, however. Thanks to taxation policy, farmers manage to keep the bulk of their money inviolate, while declaring miniscule sums. This enables them to maintain their vehicle fleets at minimal cost, while entitling their children to grants meant theoretically for the children of the poor. Natural disasters have no meaning for them....they are compensated on the grand scale, which in its turn provides permanent support for the car sales industry. You have no idea how much the average guy who has to economise to keep his car on the road resents the fleets of white vans and smart cars issuing from farm gateways. You have no idea how much the general shopkeeper or tradesman resents the handouts for hard times while he faces going bust and being obliged to keep on paying workmen for whom he has no work.

Still, as my elderly neighbours say
'Nous sommes pour rien'......we don't count.

Farmers count. These subsidies keep the French agro alimentary industry turning, and keep the farming vote turning out for the right in French national politics, and, thanks to the European Union, we all pay for their privileges.