Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bonfire of the vine-ties


This morning’s news is that the piles of vine-posts around the farm are finally being burnt. Once that’s done these fields can be tilled and turned to the task of sprouting grass.

Vines 28 April 2011 
If we rewind to April of this year we can see the vineyards prior to being torn up by the lease-holders. I wrote about this arrachément back in June.  That’s left us with the fields as seen below for five months.

20111129 vineyards

When we sauntered down to inspect the scene mid-morning, there were four or five stacks ablaze. One guy with a front-loader was taking care of it all, combining smaller stacks where appropriate, clearing some space around them and then finally dousing them with fuel and setting them alight. The intense heat kept one from comfortably approaching closer than about 4-5 metres.

front loader at work  my front loader at work
By lunch time he’d reached the row of vine stacks on the other side of our pond and there was soon a large plume of smoke obliterating the sun. Gustav and I went down to check it out after a while. The warmth was a bit wasted today with an unseasonable 16C before the fire heat was added in.

closest fire  Gustav despatches wood scraps
Late afternoon saw the piles having burnt down to flickering embers wrapped in coils of vine-wire glowing white to yellow hot.


A curious addition to the sunset and fiery embers was this loop of sun-illuminated cloud which I thought may have been a contrail from a turning jet, but Brent claims there have been similar cloudy curlicues here lately due to some local weather patterns. Whether the loops match up to similar figures etched on the landscape below by alien invaders, I can only wonder. If giant tripods start riding across the Gers, you will read about it here first.

sky light
As the sun receded and the only light came from the bonfires dotting the landscape before me, I thought “ooh bonfires .. bon + fires .. must be French”. Mais non. Bonfire comes from bone+fire, and not from the torched remains of martyrs, but of cattle bones thrown to the flames. The French call their bonfires feux de joie or in the more garden-variety sense of burning rubbish, feux de jardin.

If one is burning books or heretics then you may recognise auto-da-fé (“act of faith”) from histories of the Inquisition. Sometimes the word bûcher is used where English-speakers refer to a pyre, related to the word bûche for log or stake, and so to be burnt at the stake is to die sur bûcher. This is not related to the words butcher or its French cognate boucher which literally mean goat-slaughterer. The word buck for a male goat or other animal shares this lineage.

Half a millennium ago, the famous Bonfire of the Vanities was an autodafé held in the centre of Florence by the influential friar Savanarola. The “vanities” were a reference to the symbols of “moral decay” thrown to the flames, including books, ornaments, diamond-studded malamute collars and paintings depicting classically posed figures.

evening bonfires

With ten red-hued bonfires standing out of the darkness, Gustav seemed rather pensive. I think he was having Viking flashbacks to the good old days of village burning.

P1070328 P1070336 
A further bonus on top of today’s warm weather and clear skies is the sight of the Pyrenees riding the horizon. Is there a pyre connection?

The name Pyrenees may derive from one of several sources. The most popularly quoted is that it comes from the Gallic princess Pyrene*, who in mythology was the daughter of a king that hosted Hercules during his labours, in point of fact while stealing the cattle of the giant Geryon. It’s not clear if the name is truly a Gallic one, or a Hellenic one that might be linked to pyr/pyros for fire. Maybe she was a “hot one”.  Many sources simply claim pyrene as the Greek word for fire, but I don’t think that’s the case. There was a very famous manufacturer of fire-extinguishing equipment, The Pyrene Company of Delaware. However pyren is Greek for the stone of a fruit, and pyrene may be used in that context today. Also there are several females of the name Pyrene in Greek mythology and the derivations may be different.

Another source says the name Pyrenees comes directly from pyr (fire) in reference to “a great conflagration which, through the neglect of some shepherds, destroyed its woods, and melted the ore of its mines, so that the brooks ran with molten silver.”

Lovely view** anyway.  I hope some scholarly geographer may be able to set us all straight on the true source of the name.

* I’ve had a horrible audio nightmare of some mum calling out for a daughter of this name in some Australian shopping mall: Py-reen! Some people get a bit excited and say she was a goddess rather than just a mortal princess.

**Which reminds me of when I had my tonsils out in the Buena Vista hospital, Bellevue Hill in Sydney. Shades of La Brea Tar Pits! I hope my otolaryngologist had a belle vue when peering down my throat.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Le jour de la dinde

Apparently this is a traditionBack in the 90s when I started working with a lot of Americans down under, they’d refer to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, and stick up pictures of crudely drawn birds made by drawing around the outline of their splayed fingers. During my Seattle years I attended a few turkey dinners with those who hadn’t braved weather and airlines to fly back to distant family around North America.

This year Jean announced she was going to cook “a lot of brown stuff” for a Gersois Thanksgiving dinner and the guest roster from the UK, Australia and Sweden would bring colourful side dishes. It wasn’t practical to find a whole turkey here so she followed George Orwell’s recipe from his Animal Farm cookbook of “four legs good, two legs bad” and assembled a multi-drumsticked superbird from available parts. We donated apple-sauce and a very colourful cabbage, apple and orange salad.
Minty telling me that I'm acting weird.  Otto explains his new chess game to Susie and Minty
Being rather an outsider for Thanksgiving rituals I was the only person who fell for Jean’s request that I keep a small pumpkin balanced on my head during dinner. Perhaps I was the only person with sufficient deportment skills and grace to pull off such a tricky manoeuvre while quaffing beaujolais nouveau and debating with the Munsoneers.

Jean’s account of the banquet may be found over on Brat Like Me.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Apple sauce–armagnac style

Munson cleans the roasting pan

Roast pork, gravy and apple saucePork is a whole lot cheaper than other meats in France, so I thought I’d try a roast pork shoulder. It all came out very well, all the flesh came apart in my fingers straight out of the roasting pan.  I could have gotten away with shortening the cooking time by an  hour or so since the shoulder cuts I had were already deboned and rolled.

I found a super-easy recipe for apple sauce that called for a few tablespoons of cognac to be added. Cognac? ‘Heck I’ve got litres of armagnac in my kitchen just waiting to be used for cooking. I’ve got the food miles on this meal way down – most of it came from the local farmers market and the armagnac was produced on this very farm.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Everything old is new again

Europe Spring 2007 - one photo per day travelled


Those readers (hi!) who follow this blog’s updates through twitter, RSS feeds or email updates may be seeing a trickle of posts from 2007. There is a reason!

As I’m working on “the draft of the book of the blog”, I’m reviewing old posts in conjunction with my other notes, photographs and various sordid memories. The block of posts I’m working on are those relating to the Europe Spring 2007 tour which had Bondi and I tackle twenty countries across 20,000km in about fifteen weeks.

Since my posts on the road were often quite hurried, and I couldn’t upload many decent quality photographs, I’m taking the time to reformat and republish those old posts as I redigest them. There’ll be a few minor copyedits here and there to correct typos and dead-links, and the addition of more keywords for my own indexing amusement, but otherwise you’ll just see those posts looking much clearer. Where I stitched together photos haphazardly using ancient 2007 technology, I’ve been able to restitch the originals with much cleaner results. The luxury of better bandwidth and better editing software*  means I’ve been able to lay out each post with larger image previews and


As of this minute, I’ve updated the posts for March 1 – 4, but it’s not hard to work out where I’m up to as the posts thereafter remain looking a little bit like roadworn 2007.

* Windows Live Writer: and no that doesn’t mean I’m letting the WLW team off the hook for the bugs I submitted years ago that haven’t been fixed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bondi dreaming

Bondi, Dubrovnik
This morning I was locating some pictures of Bondi to send to someone and fell into a sad little reverie as I skimmed through some of our adventures together. I’ve picked out a few photos from hither and thither that haven’t been posted here before.

Paris 2006  Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire WalesEdinburgh Festival offices  Vancouver - Stanley ParkSydney 2008
Good night little one.

Soup kitchen

It seems I just can’t stay out of the kitchen these days. However, buying fresh food in 1-2 week batches at the local markets means you have to use or lose it. When I made the lavender lamb last week, I roasted about a third of a butternut pumpkin in the pan. I had the intention of turning the rest into soup, so I took the time to skin and de-seed the remainder, and wrapped it up for the refrigerator.
2011-11-23 Pumpkin soup
The recipes I saw for pumpkin soup called for greater quantities than the kilo I had left over from the lamb roast, so I made up the difference in potatoes and threw in a beet to compensate for colour and flavour. I also toasted some pumpkin seeds and pine nuts to serve along with fresh cream to the finished masterwork. It certainly beats anything I’ve ever had out of a tin. I really don’t know why I didn’t get into the real soup-making habit long before.

Surprisingly, Gustav had never had pumpkin in any form before I introduced him to its sweet seductive taste. Munson on the other hand has been loitering “with intent” since the aroma of soup started floating off the stovetop this afternoon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A week in the kitchen

IMG_2721Many mornings I find Gustav standing in the kitchen, hands tucked into his hoodie pockets, announcing that he’s cold and hungry. Well as Lorraine Kelly said recently on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, if you’ve been affected by any of the issues presented in the show so far, go to

This morning I did rectify matters by extending the breakfast menu with a platter of corn fritters. The particular recipe I used called for grated zucchini but those have all disappeared into the last pot of ratatouille, so I diced some red capsicums instead. That’s a simple enough substitution but I’m finding that I often have to make last minute adaptations to recipes either because I forgot something at the shops, or I simple can’t find it locally. For more workaday ingredients, I’m finding the ingredient substitution table at Joy of Baking to be quite handy for such things as self-raising flour, or buttermilk.
Yesterday I found mustard seeds after looking in four different supermarkets in recent weeks, none of which had moutard en graines or en poudre. At the weekly outdoor market in Lectoure on Friday I finally found someone who sold flaxseed (graines de lin) and another with sun-dried tomatoes. The latter are usually found only in small, expensive jars, so getting a big bag for €7 was a huge win. I have also looked high and low for sweet chilli sauce – even in one of the airport-sized hypermarchés in Toulouse – but didn’t turn up any until a week ago, noting that it had no French labelling – it was originally bound for English/Dutch/German customers. I think I’ll make my own!

Pisse-dru "thick piss" While I was sniffing out mustard powder in the Lectoure Intermarché I chanced on this rack of new beaujolais with a rather unusual label “Pisse-dru”, apparently French slang for “thick piss”!
Roast lamb shoulder with lavenderLast week’s first culinary experiment was lavender lamb. I spotted an article about using lavender instead of rosemary when roasting a shoulder and was immediately intrigued. The only time I remember having lavender in food was a crème brûlée back in Sydney.

The recipes generally call for the flowering stalks, but it’s too late in the year for those so impatient me had to settle for the leafy branches. I looked up a number of sites with lavender recipes – all of which said the leaves could be used, but none said exactly how – so I simply fell back to using them like rosemary. The end result was interesting but on balance I prefer the rosemary. Maybe I’ll try again when I have some flowers to work with.

biscotti loaves, fresh from ovenMucnson, pistachio catcherAfter my biscotti success, I made a larger batch. I divided the ingredients so that the larger portion would be strictly by the recipe, while the remainder substituted fleur d’orange essence  for lemon zest. I tell you that shelling and skinning the pistachios gets boring pretty quickly. Munson cunningly placed himself on the kitchen floor, so that every time a pistachio kernel flew out of my hands, he was there to catch it.  

The fleur d’orange batch went into a longer thinner dish, producing a very flat loaf. Both smelled wonderful when they emerged from the oven, but I found that when I toasted the slices later, most of the orange scent was driven out.

biscotti, sliced for toasting  biscotti loaves, interior

The thinner biscotti fingers are good for coffee-dunking!


On a trip to IKEA last week, Gustav bought a couple of boxes of spiced biscuits. He told me that a Swedish tradition (like standing in the kitchen and saying you’re cold and hungry) is to put one of these flat on your palm and press into the centre with your finger. If it cracks into three portions then it’s considered lucky and you can make a wish. Above is my first time effort. Munson is the one who thinks he’s going to get lucky.

Actually Gustav has been busy in the kitchen, and recently introduced me to a dish called Flygande Jacob / Flying Jacob, which is a chicken casserole made with bacon, bananas and peanuts. The dish was created in the 70s by a Swedish air-freight pilot who was inspired by carbonara sauce, but had to substitute ingredients with what he had to hand. I found a useful video which illustrates the practice of Swedish cooking as I’ve come to know:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tintin and the 1 500 000 figurines

Bondi & Tintin in Brugge - Salamanca - Derry

I was about seven years when I first encountered Tintin books in Bourke library, beginning with The Secret of the Unicorn / Red Rackham’s Treasure pairing. What a world of discovery that was! My only experience of 2D* animated characters thus far had been Disney cartoons and comic books. Without even referring back to the books I can recall it as being the first place I had a story with history, submarines, pirates, a scientist, humour and the little snapshot of a moment in time found in each frame.  By the time the last finished title in the series arrived in 1976 I had collected all the books for my own re-reading pleasure. I remember my father would often visit my room in the evening to borrow a few volumes of Tintin and Asterix to read in bed – he must have read the entire series many times over by the time I took them away in the late 80s.

(* I had to say 2D because my first animated love was the stop-motion phantasmagoria that is The Magic Roundabout, like Tintin, another French-language creation. Unlike Tintin, the dialogue was entirely transmuted to a completely new sensibility for English-speaking audiences. )

Carrefour Condom - Tintin display

With the release of the Stephen Spielberg/Peter Jackson 3D animated adaptation of Unicorn(with bits of Rackham and Crab with the Golden Claws thrown in), the French Carrefour hypermarket and supermarket chain has launched a huge marketing campaign using the Tintin characters. The cost of outfitting its 4587 French stores with Tintin posters and displays, Tintin trolley livery and billboards everywhere would have Captain Haddock screaming “Pithecanthropic pickpocket! Purple profiteering jellyfish!”

Captain Haddock

Captain Haddock, big hamEach Tuesday I get a large wad of advertising brochures through the post. Jean calls it the “Conforamagasm” and is very meticulous about making sure that I don’t miss a single leaflet. As Christmas nears, the number and thickness of each is growing. The Carrefour supermarket specials are decorated with Tintin characters, and I can’t say the results are always terribly attractive when the corpse-like skin of the film versions is transferred to cheap colour newsprint.

Given Captain Haddock’s propensity for colourful language I would have liked to have seen his image screaming Cornichons!  or morues dans un carton à chapeau (cod in a hatbox*)! on suitable grocery illustrations. He is next to a beard-trimmer on one page, but I’m still wondering if “big ham” translates literally into French as per the image on the right.

(*”cod in a hatbox” sounds like something that could have come from the mouth of Royce “God on a Wheel” Reed, surely the spiritual daughter of Captain Haddock and Bianca Castafiore. This comes from a frame in Explorers on the Moon. It’s not actually an insult; the Captain is lamenting that the lunar crew will die like cod in a hatbox, or in the English version, the drearier “kippers in a crate”.)

Part of the promotion is enticing customers to buy enough to earn vignettes (little stickers) that will eventually allow them to have some of the “exclusive” character figurines of which there are only 1.5 million available. True collectibles…hmmm. They don’t seem to look very much like the original characters or necessarily like the film versions.

Swedish cuisineThe good news for Gustav was found in the Intermarché brochure: half-price Swedish sandwiches!

Actually I think that’s a good one for Captain Haddock: half-price Swedish sandwich!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The cat inspector

Munson, Milkshake & GreycuteNovember continues to be chiefly sunny, tee-shirt wearing weather, warm days broken up by a little bit of rain and nights cool enough to demand a roaring fire for comfort.

Through these glorious days the kittens laze about on doorsteps, their sunshine broken up only by fluffy cumulomunson clouds wafting by.

Munson’s putting on winter form, a little bit more fat and a much denser coat. Already many smaller cloudlets are breaking off him and floating around the house.
Munson, Milkshake & Greycute  Munson, Milkshake & Greycute
IMG_2710Griff, the blackest of the cats is a frequent visitor to our villa at night, his eyes appearing first, heralded by loud purring.  Munson is sooo happy to see him and escorts him through the house, tail wagging crazily. One time Griff ran under our bed, his purring amplified by the enclosure. Munson was a bit freaked by this and jumped onto the bed for refuge, hanging over the edge to try to determine the source of the noise. Griff emerged under him, twisting his head back to rub himself all over Munson’s snout.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Bantam Menace

We’ve had several waves of new arrivals in the chicken department over the last few months. The first douzaine are now feral free-ranging teenagers who hang out in the car park and skinny dip in the pond. This “St Trinians” generation can’t be kept cooped up as they simply fly up into the trees and party noisily into the night.
Flying chooksWalking near the pond is like an excursion through the Amazon basin, as large exotic hens squawk and flutter through the tree canopy.  They’re quite a hardy bunch, being the survivors of various running and flying predators who picked them off in their early days.

The tree canopy
The next arrivals were the colourful trio I dubbed Charlie’s Angels, who have grown some since riding around on mother hen’s back in September.

The third wave – 14 chicks – arrived in early October, Jean having discovered them newly hatched in a secret location at the back of a barn. As Broody the hen leads them around the farm, I’m reminded of
scenes of young schoolgirls being swept around by a swift-moving nun/teacher in the Madeline books.  (Interestingly these books are only French-inspired, the author being an Austrian-born New Yorker).

Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans   Madeline's class meets Hen Solo & Princess Layer Organic
Yesterday I found one of the un-named red hens I bought earlier in the year escorting a single chick around the coop. I’ve given them the names Hen Solo and Princess Layer Organic. Chewbacca Munson has already sniffed her out from a distance. Now that we’re nearly knee deep in poultry he only pays them attention when they stray onto our terrace to feed on my fading herbs. They don’t linger very long when he spots their incursion…

Princess Layer Organic

Postscript [16 November]: Princess Layer passed away this morning, as did mother Hen Solo, probably from fending off an attacker around dusk. The coop is under lockdown today.