Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Honest Indian

Just a short note to say that the Indian grocery store I saw on Saturday was open today, and, at the end of the afternoon, I wandered over there to see what they had. Unlike the "Asia" stores in Europe, this was a dedicated Indian store, with a few additions like Caribbean hot sauce and, amazingly 00 flour, used for pizzas, which I've never seen in a market here before. But mostly it's Indian. You need a 5 kilo sack of cloves? The friendly, English-speaking guy who runs the place has it. But every spice, every type of dal, every kind of flour used in Indian cooking, freezers full of vegetarian stuff and a separate one for meat-bearing stuff (and, amazingly frozen cubed panir, the Indian cheese that's such a pain in the butt to make at home), teas, dessert mixes, and some heat-and-eat dishes that looked interesting: non-refrigerated, and presumably in plastic bags of some sort. No fresh produce, though: you still need your Asia store for fresh chiles and cilantro. I was overwhelmed! It's been a while since I've been in a place like this, and never in continental Europe, only in Britain. Unsurprisingly, he gets his stock from Leicester, and imports it himself. He even gave me two tips on Indian food locally: Le Shiva, in the Antigone neighborhood, which he said was "ah, okay," and someplace around Palavas on the seashore called New India, which he said was the real deal, "but you must have a car to get there."

Anyway, local vegetarians take note: you can make scrupulously authentic Indian food with the stuff at this place, and now that my sense of smell and taste is back, I intend to!

Sai Food, 3 rue Maury, 34000 Montpellier. Open Tue-Sat, Saturday til 2pm. Tel: 04 67 71 89 24

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Sorry for the long time between posts. The "dark days" forseen in the last one have definitely descended here, and they're far from over.

But there's a limit to how much you can fight and how hard, and so I took the day off from the battle today. After all, I reasoned, the last Sunday of the month is free museum day, and although I have no interest, particularly, in Alexandre Cabanel, the subject of the special show at the Fabre that's been up since July, I figured that I could give it a once-over and then check out the (fairly) new annex the museum's set up in a bourgeois mansion a block away. It's mostly furniture and domestic decoration, but hey, I'm pretty bored these days.

There was almost nobody in the museum, so I walked right over to the entrance to the Cabanel only to be hailed by one of the Fabre's famous nasty guards. "You have to have a ticket," he said. I told him it was the last Sunday of the month, so I didn't need one. Now, here's where the Fabre really needs to work on its PR, because it promotes itself as an important tourist destination. It turns out I was wrong: it's the first Sunday of the month that's free. But instead of imparting that information, he said "Buy a ticket or leave."

Excuse me?

I wasn't nearly interested enough to buy a ticket even if I had had €8, so I left. I'll go back next Sunday unless I have something better to do, and maybe I'll moon this guy if he's still lurking around.

So I walked outside, and realized that hell, I didn't want to be in a museum anyway: we're now at the point of the year where it's cool outside, but the sun is good and warm. I'd hoped that, when this weather arrived, I could indulge myself in a truly epic walk: here to Sommières, dinner and overnight there, and then on to Nimes and take the train home. But that's going to cost a bit of money I don't have, so I went back and got my camera and decided to wander.

* * *

I did have one destination in mind: there's a young woman I see almost every day around here that I'm very worried about. Here's a picture of her:

The shopping mall in my back yard (which also has my supermarket in its basement) has seasonal pinups advertising the shops inside, and this is the Autumn girl. Click the photo and look at it in a larger size: this is Skeletor-woman. Her legs in particular disturb me:

I could make a circle with the thumbs and forefingers of my two hands and encircle her thigh without touching her. Recently, I remarked to someone that a number of my American female friends have wondered how French women keep their looks for so long and I replied with the usual patter about good food, active lifestyle, attention to detail, and so on. "Yeah, well," he replied, "speed's got something to do with it, too. What do you think all these 'slimming clinic' places are?" Looking at Miss Autumn (and I spent an hour standing next to a smaller version of this picture, so I got a good look), I have to say there may be something to that.

* * *

My next destination was a sort of fantasy destination. There's a restaurant here I've been intensely curious about, but I've never met anyone who's eaten there. It's called Le Ban des Gourmands, and it doesn't have a website (but it does have a Facebook page), and it just gives off a vibe as being the kind of place where good food happens. It's just kind of hard to get people interested in going there when you tell them it's in a kind of sleazy Arab neighborhood behind the railroad tracks, but the price is good, and I'm definitely going there some day. So I drifted down there and discovered they have a monthly table d'hôte  dinner on the first Monday of the month. Worth noting, and I did.

Standing there, I got one of my walking inspirations: there was a road that seemed to go in a direction I wasn't sure I'd ever gone in. So, of course, I had to take it. But it turned out that I had, of course, been there before: it was just too close to my house for me not to have tried it. But...what was this other street over here? And before I knew it, I was walking down a street lined with decaying old mansions -- villas, they're called here -- some of which seemed to be still one or two-family houses, others carved up into multi-family residences. At one point a curious Russian delicatessen went by, and then I came upon an Indian grocery store, pretty big, from what I could tell, called Sai-Food. I missed it by 20 minutes, though, so I'll have to go back.

More mansions, and a huge high-school, which must have been an architectural sensation for about 18 months after it was built in the '60s with its cylinders and cubes, scheduled for demolition, and suddenly I recognized where I was and crossed over to the sunny side of that street and, before too long, found myself back home. A well-spent day doing nothing, I'd say!

* * *

Lunkhead report: A number of readers have asked me for an update on Les Lunkheads downstairs. As most of you know, there was a bit of a rumble the day after the teargassing when several people kicked in the door to the Lunkhead apartment. This ruined door hung for a day or two, then was replaced by a curtain while various Lunkfriends took a door from inside the apartment and fashioned it into an outside door. This just made me realize that there's an art to hanging doors, because this thing has never really fit, and you can see into the apartment when it's closed. The landlord was on vacation when all of this happened, and I can't imagine he was pleased, since this €1400 apartment is the -- I was going to say "jewel," but in this building...

Anyway, it's been mostly sort of quiet down there since. I keep hoping this means that they're moving out, and the other day I saw some paint rollers drying on their balcony (tenants have to repaint an apartment white when they move out in Europe), but that's all the info I have. I know the landlord visited them the other day (oh, I'm hyper-sensitive to his voice by now...), but since he didn't visit me afterwards (whew), I have no idea what transpired.

We'll see what happens next. October 1 starts the period where landlords aren't allowed to order tenants out of their residences, so if they're not gone by then, they're here for the winter. It's very hard to evict tentants in this country if they've been paying their rent, and les Lunkheads are anarchists, which means their parents are paying their rent, so despite the sheaf of complaints from neighbors in the surrounding buildings, they may still be safe. All I know is there was a very loud party down there this past Thursday, which seems to be the traditional Fête des Lunkheads, and the guy upstairs, who's nobody to mess around with, blew up at them. I'll keep you posted.

LUNKHEAD UPDATE: Mere hours after I posted that, a bunch of drunks piled into the apartment and, apparently, decided to cook something, an event always prefaced by what sounds like piles of pots falling onto the floor. Apparently the method of cooking chosen was frying, as, from the smell, it often is, but as I sat here at my desk, there was suddenly a huge fireball which illuminated the entire courtyard. This was followed by hilarity, but I imagine that if it was a greasefire, the walls must have been scorched. Furthermore, the fact that I felt the explosion with my feet reminds me that their kitchen is just below me, so I've instituted an emergency drill in case I have to evacuate, so that I can save my computer with all my work on it, as well as the backup discs and get out the door (presuming the stairwell isn't on fire) before the apartment burns.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Learning To Taste Again

As some of you readers know, for the past year and more, I've only been able to taste things -- or, more accurately, smell things -- in very sporadic episodes. The reason, as determined by a fine ENT specialist here, was that I had polyps growing inside one of my sinuses, which caused the sinus to enlarge, pinching off the nerve which carried information from my nose to my brain. Since last August, I've been taking a variety of drugs to fight this, and the victories have been few.

But there have been victories. When things are going well, I find my sense of taste turning on during my second cup of coffee in the morning. I'll raise the cup to my lips and a message will appear in my brain: it's coffee! And then we're back. But not for long: the sensation starts leaving around 4pm, and by dinnertime, it's gone. I have ways to check this: there's a pantry in my kitchen, one of the few things I like about it, and when you open the door you're greeted with the odors of the various Indian spices and herbs that live there. Sometimes I'll have a basil plant hanging out in the kitchen, which I'll pinch with my fingers, then smell my fingers. Sometimes the peppery smell is there. Often, not.

A couple of months ago, I made a discovery I still don't know much about: if I sniffed, hard, I could sometimes open my olfactory channels again. I think my neighbor upstairs must have concluded I was a major coke-head, so loud did I sniff towards the end of the afternoon and into the evening. But it was too often a losing battle: by the time dinner was on the table, it was all texture, and basic salt, sour, sweet tastes. Your tongue is a limited vocabulary of nouns, I learned. Your nose is a rich collection of adjectives.

This made wine-tasting impossible, of course. Why do you think people swirl wine around in the glass and then sniff it before taking a little in their mouth and "chewing" it, forcing vapors up into their sinuses? I could relate to the tasters' term "robe," because my tongue would feel like cloth of varying qualities was being passed over it, but the other notes never happened. Good wines had smooth robes, bad ones were like wearing scratchy wool, acid pricking the surface of my tongue.

Another thing that lives in your nose: garlic. I would cook a pasta sauce and be aware of a certain heat-like sensation in my mouth, but was I overdoing (or, heaven forbid, underdoing) the garlic? Sometimes I'd go to the leftovers during the afternoon, take the lid off of the refrigerator carton, and inhale to see what this thing I'd created really tasted like. The garlic and herbs were there, all right.

But as summer came on, the open periods began lasting longer. I'll never forget the first time my ability to taste lasted through dinner and into the next morning, when I took a shower and actually knew what my shampoo smelled like and could taste my toothpaste. I bought a bottle of good wine to celebrate, only to have everything fold back up by 8pm. And stay that way for 24 hours. Still, I did manage an evening out at the Estivales with a friend and tasted six different wines -- and some well-cooked mussels. Another time, I made pasta with tuna sauce, an old favorite, and gloried in the smell of the garlic sautéeing in the olive oil as I made it.

It's lasting longer and longer. The other day, a couple from Texas showed up and, although I couldn't really afford it, I joined them at an inexpensive restaurant just because I was hungry and my nose was still working. There was a fine rabbit terrine to start and I marvelled at the fact that I could discern that this wasn't made of chicken or pork, but another flavor which sat at the base of the seasonings which had been used -- quite subtly -- to complement it. My main course was stuffed cuttlefish, and the stuffing was dull -- but I could tell it was! And we shared a bottle of Mas de la Serrane, which remains one of my favorite wines from this region, and I could taste it and it was good. Very good. I know the €25 I spent was an extravagance, because I know I have some very dark days ahead in the next couple of weeks, but between the good company and the good food, and the fact that I could fully enjoy what I was eating and drinking, it was impossible for me to resist.

Again, everything lasted overnight, and I was really looking forward to using the other half of the pizza dough from the other day. It turned out to be a race against time: I started closing up after the pizza was in the oven, and I could smell it cooking for the first time in I don't know how long. But in the 25 minutes it was in the oven, I noticed my smell was receding. As I ate the pizza, I kept sniffing hard, and the oregano and the garlic were there, but I had to work at it, sniffing like a madman. I had a bottle of wine, a real bargain the guys at the wine store had found, and was looking forward to that, but after dinner, I only got a couple of sniffs of it and it went away.

The challenge I'm going to present the doctor next time I'm in is first, to figure out why this happens at this time of day (my GP thinks that's significant, and she seems to be pretty smart), and then to see how I can get this return of sensation to be not only permanent, but more intense. Even at my best, I'm not 100% back, and as the old gospel tune says, 99 1/2 just won't do.

Meanwhile, I'm having constant surprises: flavors I haven't experienced in a long time. A couple of weeks ago, I went to celebrate a small check by buying (instead of making) a sandwich. My regular sandwich shop was closed -- it was Monday -- and I wandered around until I found a place making paninis, and ordered a ham-and-mozzarella panini. The guy asked me if I wanted herbes de Provence on it, and of course I agreed. "And olive oil?" Sure! And boy, was that good! It was good because it was good, but it was also good because I was enjoying sensations I hadn't had in a long, long time.

A lot of us, as kids, scare ourselves by wondering what it would be like to be blind all of a sudden. Or deaf, although I didn't have to imagine that one: my father suffered from tympanic sclerosis, a thickening of the eardrum. But nobody stops to consider what it'd be like to lose your sense of taste. Well, I did, and it was no fun. I don't think I'll ever be able to take it for granted again, and I'm waiting in eager anticipation for the next amazing flavor to cross my palate as I sit here at my desk smelling the bread baking for the bakery around the corner's 3pm delivery. What a wonderful perfume.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Workers (And The Nobility)

Right now, as I sit typing this, I hear sirens, odd noises, chanting, French rock music, and those vuvuwhatzises being blown. No surprise, of course: France is having another of its general strikes today, so there will be noise.

This one I saw coming. Nicolas Sarkozy, in one of his rare moments of sanity, has proposed that the retirement age be raised to 65 from 60, where it is now, as a means of stimulating the economy. As someone who would have been forcibly retired by now under the current rules, and who feels like he has a lot of good work still in him, I think this is a wonderful idea.

These folks don't:

Or, to be precise, some of them don't. Some are buying food at McDonald's and some are, as I was, taking pictures. The folks with the red CGT (Conféderation Général du Travail, which my dictionary tells me is a "French trade union," which is pretty obvious) banners are the organizers here, and under their umbrella, as far as I can tell, are a lot of unions of various types, including health workers, researchers, and performers:

It's been a good day not to do anything. Our save-the-library meeting was postponed a day because the trams and buses aren't running, Air France is operating on a very reduced schedule (although the long-haul flights are happening), the mail wasn't delivered today (although it was picked up at the mailboxes, I noted), and even the market this morning was thin on merchants, although the vicious storms we had starting last night may have had something to do with that: parts of the area are code red on the France Météo map, while most of it is code orange. 

And although one of the purposes of these huge demonstrations (there were delegations from all over the area) is to show unity, various shades of political opinion are very much tolerated. This gentleman, for instance, was, unlike the folks carrying a banner demanding retirement at 55 and 40 hours' pay for a 35-hour week (really, what are they smoking?), endorsing something very close to my own opinion: 

So basically it's a day out in the big city for the country cousins, a chance to make trouble without being punished, and an excuse to play Fela records from big sound systems because, as all of us who live here can attest, France in 2010 is so very much like Nigeria in 1973. 

* * * 

From the proletariat to the nobility, now. For some months, a property has been on the market that, except for the possibility of a ghost, seems like it might be a good investment. 

Here it is, 10 rue de l'Argenterie:

Actually, you can't see much of it in this picture, but the archway is old, old, old. It's also got a historical marker which I will (accurately, this time) translate for you:

13th to 17th Centuries

The Kings of Aragon lived here, and here, Jasques III, in 1343, killed his page, Bernard de Roquefeuil, for spilling a little wine on his doublet. 

The house has been reconfigured. 

It's a great midtown location on a colorful shopping street and a great investment opportunity, as well as a chance to brag "I live in the palace of the Kings of Aragon. Right across from the wine shop." 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Another Pizza

I never buy stuff at the market just because it's cute -- in fact, cute doesn't really enter into my esthetic much at all -- but in the past few weeks, I've been intrigued by these mini-eggplants that show up from time to time. What do people around here do with them, I wondered.

I still don't have the answer to that, but an idea came to me for something I could do with them: I love eggplant on pizza, and these guys seemed perfect.

I got some equally small tomatoes and got to work. First, I sliced the eggplants into coins and discarded the tops and bottoms. Then I lined them up on paper towels and salted them. When they'd sweat a while, I turned them over again and salted that side.

Then I wiped off as much salt as I could -- but I wasn't really scrupulous about it, because I had an idea -- and I sautéed them in olive oil until they were brown.

Then I let them sit, and sure enough, my idea panned out: they absorbed all of the excess oil and, when I tasted one, it was perfectly salted.

So I assembled the pizza, and this time I only made one mistake. The first layer was the eggplants, which I then squirted with garlic sent through my trusty garlic press. The next layer was the tomatoes, at which point I should have put the oregano on, but spaced. Next, a brand-new product from my supermarket: actual grated mozzarella from Italy. You don't know how much I dislike taking fresh mozz, cutting it up, and draining the water out of it when I make pizza, but if I don't, it'll make the crust soggy and the pizza a total disaster. I don't think, in retrospect, that I used enough of this stuff, but here it is, ready to go in the oven. (Note the oregano on top of the cheese: I would smell the flavor oils burning before I took the pizza out, dammit).

And here it is, ready to eat.

It was almost perfect. Not enough mozzarella, and you can see the burned oregano (the white cheese there is some parmesan, which goes on, with some olive oil, after it comes out of the oven), but since my taste buds seem to be about 85% back most evenings, it tasted just great. The eggplant sent some of its oil into the tomatoes, and some into the garlic, and the combined flavor was just as I'd imagined it. The biggest problem now is, how much longer can I get those little eggplants? Because I'd like to do this again, but not this week.
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