Monday, October 29, 2012

Swallowing the sun

Munson Eclipse (1)
Daylight saving ends tonight, heralded by a major canine eclipse.
Munson Eclipse (2)  Munson Eclipse (3)
Munson Eclipse (4)

Friday, October 26, 2012

If you can’t stand the rain, stay in the kitchen

I'll just be snoozing here until the next food-fall
We love the rain, loooooooove it, lurve it. The fields are greening again, our small vegetable patch has woken up, and the intermittent sunshine is even driving the growth of more tomatoes! But we can’t stand around all day outside admiring it and watching it trickle into the pond and slowly swell it back to its earlier breadth and depth.

As summer is shrugged off, the food palette changes and I’m trying out some new  recipes in the kitchen. The first of them was directly inspired by Ken’s XXX recipe for GâteauX auX pruneauX ie prune cakes. I’ve also realised that the prune keyword on Ken’s blog suggests some further savoury adventures.

ring of prunes  slice of gateau aux pruneaux
Luckily I had a silicone kugelhopf mould – which I’d bought years ago and never used. Today it got lucky, playing host to this very easy concoction.  If you’re going to live so close to the centre of the pruniverse, then you have to take advantage of such a plum position.

There have been a few surprises too. When Steph was staying with us I made a chicken casserole in the slow-cooker, and threw in a few dried chillies to lift it a bit. Then I used the stock from that as a base for my next pumpkin soup … let me just say that as tasty and warming as that was, it was a purifying experience. Chilli can pass through the circle of life without losing its potency.

The next surprise was more short-lived. I was reaching for some tongs from one of the draining pots over the sink, and as I was about to wield it over another dish, I realised that there a small green frog sitting in its jaws. This is the third one we’ve had in the house recently, even the frogs are getting out of the rain.
not enough for frogs' legs
Today I experimented with using the slow-cooker as a dry oven by roasting a chicken in it. I found a recipe for green olive and lemon chicken in an Australian Women’s Weekly recipe magazine in Amsterdam a few months ago. That worked out very well, and I added a dish of potatoes dauphinoise to serve with them. Neither required very much work and have given us enough for two meals.

PA250747  PA250750
Dishwasher in hibernation mode

That’s what half a lifetime looks like

masters of our domain
It’s been raining enough to give Munson a bit of cabin fever, and so while Gustav was busy baking in the kitchen, we took a walk up through the front fields. I’ve got my hoe for attacking random outcrops of brambles, and Munson is just Munson, sniffing and chewing on everything of interest.

After I had exercised myself enough, and had some brambles exact bloody revenge on one of my legs, we sprawled out on the grass beneath a trio of oaks. Two years ago, most of the land between here and the house was covered in vineyards. Now it’s grass, alfalfa, clover and cow poop.

Just below us, but not visible, is the Africa-shaped pond. It’s not as exotic as the Africa-for-realz that Munson was surveying in September, but it has its odd attraction. I’ve been dropping bits of oxygenating pond weed in there, which may prove beneficial to the carp. They’re fighting with a rather reduced water-level and who knows what they’re feeding on. The last two times I’ve been past, I’ve seen one leap completely clear of the water to clear gas or silted-up gills. This time, I encountered a large one propelling itself on its belly in the shallows, at least half of its body above water. When I approached it wriggled back into the murkier “depths”, which may not be more than 15cm.

At four-and-a-half, Munson has now spent half his life in France. He’s about the same age as Bondi was when he came to Australia with me in 2003. So different, so similar, so adorably indefatigably malamute. Bondi would have been 14 this month and I sometimes reflect on how he would have appreciated the slower pace of life for his senior years. Of course I wouldn’t have contemplated this move if he were still around; our time back in Sydney was a stable and secure retirement for him.

As amazingly varied and stimulating as life has been with Munson’s to date, it’s his maturity that is the payoff now. His companionship is more meaningful because it comes with his appreciation of our shared experiences and not just the fealty of dog to master.  There are great times ahead.
Listening for the sound of one carp flapping

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Something Rain, and the Somewhat Extreme Winds

As usual, this post, ostensibly about a concert I attended, morphed into something longer than intended, but it did allow me to fold in some information a few people have requested from me about getting access to music from international sources.
Tindersticks au Toulouse (2)
About twenty years ago when I was working in downtown Sydney, I’d often wander into Red Eye Records, the largest import music store to see what had arrived that week. Pinned to the wall near the new-release section were long handwritten, typed or more latterly dot-matrix printed lists of the arrivals from London, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York, Tokyo which I would skim for familiar names.

[Here’s the long sidebar you can skip over]
There was no internet to alert you to new releases, or to say “your recent purchases indicate you may like this” or even to look up what artists had already released.  Unless you had direct recommendations from friends overseas, or an (expensive) subscription to foreign music papers, you just got whatever the music companies decided to release in Australia, often a year or more after their original release in the Northern Hemisphere.

In some ways the internet has mitigated this “tyranny of distance”. I can subscribe to newsfeeds of well-written music album and concert reviews from musicOMH, Pitchfork, or The Guardian who cover a multitude of genres, and preview most of the interesting ones via YouTube, Spotify or SoundCloud (my latest discovery – Josephine Oniyama). On the other hand the internet has seen off most of the bricks-and-mortar stores who can neither supply a deep catalogue nor the instant satisfaction of a downloaded purchase direct to your listening devices. The monolithic online stores like iTunes and Amazon have solved part of the supply issues but not all or for all.

If you’re in Australia then you have no access to music downloads from any of the Amazon stores (all in the northern hemisphere) unless you use a proxy account. Neither do you have access to the large iTunes or Spotify catalogues in the USA and UK, just the smaller list that the labels have almost whimsically decided they will allow to be sold elsewhere. Quite a lot of the European and North American artists that I like simply do not make their music available for sale in Australia, unless they manage their own distribution through their own websites, small labels  or platforms like BandCamp.

Even here in France, where music is released later than in most of Europe, you’re stuck with the domestic online stores – admittedly with the compensation of access to Qobuz which has a pretty good interface and gives you the option of buying  uncompressed CD-quality versions of tracks or even studio-masters.
Tindersticks au Toulouse (3)
Very few Australian releases make it to overseas online stores and almost certainly to nearly zero of the remaining distributors with a street presence. While I have an account with iTunes Australia, its terms actually mean it is illegal for me to buy from them while my feet are on foreign soil! It’s not actually blocked by iTunes but if you follow the labels’ demands to restrict legal sales of their artists’ products, it’s just one more obstacle to purchase. When I go back to Australia, I will find music by French artists at least as difficult to purchase.

[End of ranty sidebar].

Tindersticks au BikiniOne day in Red Eye, I heard a song being played that had me stuck between wanting to stand there listening to it finish and racing to the counter to buy it. That was my first encounter with the British group Tindersticks. The song was Tiny Tears, from their second album, later used in the first season of The Sopranos. I’ve stuck with them through many studio and live albums releases, EPs, solo projects, film-scores, and compilations.

The only time Tindersticks have toured Australia I believe to be in 2002, when I was still living in Seattle, and my last time in Europe 2005-7 was the exact period when the band seemed to have disappeared into a cloud of solo projects. Their concert appearance in Toulouse, at the end of what is quite a comprehensive tour of France for a non-local band, was definitely something I have not only been anticipating since buying the tickets in May, but for the 17 years since Tiny Tears.


The day began with a beautiful sunrise. We didn’t go to Toulouse until mid-afternoon, by which time a very strong wind was blowing. After some delays we got to the venue Le Bikini about 8, by which time there was truly a gale blowing and large broken branches to dodge on every road.
Le Bikini, ToulouseThe supporting act was solo artist Thomas Belhom who was drummer for Tindersticks at one point. He, as his label says is “a singer, percussionist and songwriter who draws beautiful landscapes of sounds”. That he definitely is, and I liked quite a lot of what I heard, but I wouldn’t say it was an ideal act for a standing-only venue. His half-hour set reminded me, in tone and execution of a an Edinburgh Festival concert given by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins and may have benefited from some kind of complementary visuals – not to mention from the audience being able to sprawl in more comfort.

Tindersticks came on promptly at 9.30pm, took over the stage and didn’t let go till the end of their second encore at about 11pm. The set was very tight without much direct audience interaction - a language issue? or simply getting down to business?
Tindersticks au Toulouse (4)  Tindersticks au Toulouse (1)
I loved the live reworkings of a number of pieces, but was a little bemused by them doing the same song This Fire of Autumn twice, about forty minutes apart, albeit in quite different arrangements – neither of them being the disco version. Was this intentional?

A small highlight of the show was one song when Dave Boulter’s organ was joined not only by guitarist Neil Fraser on keyboards but also the lead singer Stuart Staples using a small melodica – the instrument that gave me the first foothold towards learning the piano.

Even with no Tiny Tears (which they may be a bit sick of after years of touring), I was really happy with the concert. Next please, a re-visit to Australia with string and horn section, perhaps at the Sydney Opera House?
Tindersticks au Toulouse (5)

At the close of the concert, the winds outside had not abated, and the roads were even more treacherous. As I entered the main ring-road, carefully watching for cars on my left, Gustav alerted me to a large branch that had crashed onto the merge lane from our right. Luckily we were able to stop without anyone rear-ending us, and back out of it with the hazard lights on.  There was lots more junk on the roads, some of it rolling around, which didn’t seem to inspire many drivers to slow down and avoid collisions with that or with other cars in the course of avoiding it.

We spent a car-shuddering hour on our journey before the violentes intempéries (as described by my insurer in an email today) had dissipated. Apparently the wind was gusting up to 125kph throughout the region. There was no damage at the farm, but I did have a mental image of Munson pinned against our terrace wall by flying recliner chairs. Fortunately he was quite safe and happy to see us when we reached home around 1am.
Le Bikini: light deflected by wind gusts

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Au coucher du soleil

Gascon sunset
It has just occurred to me that I didn’t know how to say “sunset” in French. “Dawn” I knew to be aube as a morning love song is an aubade, as opposed to a serenade which is traditionally sung in the evening. Twilight may be translated as aube naissante,  which is literally “emerging dawn”.

For the French, the sun goes to bed and gets up the next morning, giving sunset and sunrise as coucher du soleil, and lever du soleil.

I can feel the days shortening so quickly now. Despite having lived in the northern hemisphere (at what are high latitudes for an Australian) for about ten years now off and on, I still haven’t really gotten used to the big swings in daylight time.

As I came back towards the house after taking the above photo, Jean came rushing out of the house on some mad quest to take photos with her phone. So now we have a little picture of Gustav and myself à la brune (at dusk).
Mike & Gustav @ sunset
I’m not sure where she went after that other than to tend to the stove – but there are more pictures.
Lucy is skeptical
I was left talking with Lucy who is now so close to turning 10 that you can feel it in the air. I told her that her parents are going to give the Xmas concert this year instead of the Munsoneers*. Her skeptical look pretty much encapsulates all the glances I’ve had from her parents over the years.

*I’m not sure what happened to the post I wrote about the 2011 concert – it looks like several of last year’s Xmas posts have disappeared….hmmm.

Back at the house Munson was benefiting from the weekend’s farm beef sale day with a major meaty-bone project for the evening. I don’t think he noticed the sun going to bed.
Munson is busy

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dawn departure


I know it’s highly unusual for me to post a photo taken before noon 8am, but we had a drive ahead to get Steph to Toulouse for her noon flight. It’s been pouring rain off and on all night, which may mean that our pond may start to rebuild its levels to those of pre-summer days.

On the way, I’ve made a short diversion so that she can see the magnificent profile of the chateau at Lavardens, and then an even smaller diversion through the centre of Gimont to show the great covered market square.

It’s been a great pleasure to host Steph for this nano-sabbatical, aside from the visits to new sights in the area, there has been a lot of time for talk over coffee, biscuits, cheese, wine and stacks of books. Last night we had some very clear sky before the rainclouds arrived, so I was able to show off the glory of the Milky Way overhead away from the light pollution of urban centres. Steph caught a shooting star while picking out Jupiter  through binoculars. I’m sure it will find its way into a future Fourlands novel with other experiences gained during her time with us.

It’s like this, grasshopper

The way of grass
I thought it was very important for Steph to have at least one excursion through the paddocks with Brent to get a detailed breakdown* of the soil condition, and the various types of herbiage being raised to feed the cattle here. It’s been a busy week for him, concluding with another milestone beef-sale day today. As word about the availability of grass-feed beef spreads ever further, I’m seeing buyers arriving from as far off as Bordeaux. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s only been three months since the first of these.

* I just have a detailed breakdown; I can’t remember anything about what he’s said about the grass.
And that blade is called Godfrey, and that's Grover, and ...
By the time the last of the buyers had left, there was only a half hour left for Brent’s masterclass in field fodder, but with these brilliant autumnal sunsets running at the same time, you can’t complain about the classroom setting.
Brent, Steph, Gustav

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle dogzy grapes

Steph feeds Munson

Today is Steph’s last full day here; no excursions, just slow time, warm sun, coffee and biscotti, and one last walk around the edge of the farm.

There are grapevines backing onto the farm in several places. They are heavy with blue black bunches, awaiting the vendange.  Even Munson was attracted by their thick heavy scent to suck out some juice directly from the vine.
Munson, grape hound
the eastern road  tilled field from old vineyard
Some of the dry pond beds are criss-crossed with boar tracks, and moments later we saw a giant boar-headed cloud. At the time it looked like one that Terry Gilliam’s animated God (a glowing W.G. Grace)would peer out of.
boar tracks, and pigs might fly: a cloud sanglier
In the last pond, Munson managed to find the point of most-subsidence, rather disappointing for a breed designed to avoid unsafe ice-crossings. He managed to get himself dirtier in thirty seconds than he did in a week of walking Offa’s Dyke with me last year.
dirty dog
Munson swings like a pendulum do
The cthulhippo toy that Steph brought for Munson is so violently crimson that it seems to overwhelm my camera receptors. It’s about as tricky to catch on film as a vampire. I think it may actually be close to Hollywood Cerise, a colour more associated with elephants than hippos.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Roman holiday

La Villa de SéviacAfter several days of closed-for-lunch signs and indoor diversions from rain, we finally scored entry to both the Èauze archaeological museum and the Villa at Séviac.

Modern-day Éauze, itself about a thousand years old, sits on the site of the older Roman town of Elusa from the 3rd-7th centuries. In 1985  someone dug up a few bags of coins – the largest ever found in France, some 28 thousand of them. The more recently built museum Le Trésor d’Eauze has reassembled other artefacts from the area which had dribbled out to other collections and housed them with this new treasure. Fittingly the new museum is an old bank building and the numismatique is in the underground strong-hold.

I’d love to show you some photos but cameras are not allowed, and there are no official sites for the museum which give you anything more than its address. Even the town’s official site offers no more than a triply buried menu item that goes nowhere, and the tourist site makes no mention of the museum at all!  Rather amazing when you consider what lies therein. You can find a few photos on the Archaeology Travel portal. As a tip for guests, the four floors of the smallish museum are labelled in French only, but you can get a rather good explanatory folder in English to carry around. This however only covers the ground floor’s collection of  prehistoric and early-Roman artefacts. The main coin and jewellery collection below required rather more technical French than either Steph or I possessed so I had to consult my phone’s dictionary frequently. Upstairs there are some smaller, less interesting displays on construction and wine-making in the area. These are mostly information boards with a handful of actual display objects, and again the specialized language needed to read it all made it too much of a chore.

Downstairs, the coins are laid out thematically around the strong-room, the sheer quantity making me think someone had dug up the change machine from a third-century laundromat. There are some featured pieces of jewellery incorporating sapphires, emeralds and garnets. Since the technology to cut precious stones to reveal brilliant facets is a relatively modern development, any Hollywood film you see of this era with sparkly necklaces and earrings belies the truth that they were principally dull coloured stones. Finally there were also some small iron knives with elaborate ivory handles in the form of a lion’s head or the god Bacchus.
La Villa de Séviac - panorama
Steph kindly treated Gustav and me to discounted double-tickets to the museum which included access to the Villa at Seviac. The visits don’t have to be done in the same day, but it’s a short hop to Montreal-du-Gers from Èauze, and the sun was holding out for us.

The luxury Roman residence dates from approximately the same period as Elusa and was possibly active in one form or another for about 4-500 years. It would certainly be very popular due to the large thermal bath complex to the left of the central courtyard. The rooves you see are modern constructions to protect the excavations, especially the colourful tiles found throughout.

As with the museum, we were given a binder of English notes to guide us around the complex. These were quite good and covered everything except the garden displays next to the baths.

La Villa de Séviac - baths
There were so many different types of pools, hot and cold, that it made me wonder how many slaves it took to tend to their needs in respect of water-supply, cleaning and heating. The design is also interesting as the tile patterns on the bottom of the pools are sometimes fore-shortened to give a false sense of perspective, and therefore making them seem longer.
La Villa de Séviac - baths (2)
sample of the English notes, in Comic Sans!The villa seems to have been abandoned around the end of the 700s and then raided for building materials. Inevitably the passage of time buried what was left under fields until rediscovery in the 1860s. Evenso it was not until 1959 when the site began to be properly excavated over the course of many decades. Obviously a properly-motivated malamute could have turned over the site in a matter of weeks, but archaeologists have been slow to harness their ability to not only dig, but then to roll around on their backs and dust everything off with their fluffy coat and tail.

La Villa de Séviac - Steph inspects baths
The tourist brochure for the villa does list an official website, but since it’s been abandoned to a Japanese shopping site, I won’t link to it. Someone has thoughtfully backed up the original site here.

Rather amusingly the Association de Sauvegarde des Monuments et Sites de l'Armagnac (Association for safeguarding the monuments and sites of the Armagnac) is translated by Google as the Association of Backup Sites… which made me ACTUALOL given how slack the regional government bodies are with presenting and maintaining this material.Villa de Seviac - this season's tile range
Steph & Munson at cheese o'clock
We covered both venues in about three hours, returning to Munson for an extended cheese o’clock snack session with quite a range of cheeses, dried sausage, fig jam, armagnac and other local delicacies. We may not have all the luxuries of our early Roman neighbours but we can still feast like Gascons.

Friday, October 12, 2012

These Gauls are gun crazy

Steph & Obelix - these gauls are gun crazy!

In lieu of visiting a Roman villa or any of the encampments of Laudanum, Totorum, Compendium and Aquarium, we have found Obelix lurking in the town of Éauze. Thursday is market day here, and while the onset of autumn has reduced the number of colourful legumes on display, there are compensatory pleasures with so many crates of cèpe mushroom on every other trestle table.

Eauze square  èpes ornamental pokeberry plant
I also checked the Èauze museum’s opening hours (afternoons only for this time of year).  As I mentioned earlier in the week with the villa, businesses and public buildings cannot be relied upon to be open when posted, so it is especially important not to rely on website information. I have found that many websites covering museums, galleries and the like in Midi-Pyrenées region have only a tenuous relationship with the actual place, even if the site is government run.
Chris & Steph

On the way home I took the opportunity to introduce Steph to some of our Dutch friends who have lived in the area for many years. I actually think this may have been the highlight of her week as they have so much knowledge to share about not only the local produce, but traditional building practices.