Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spot The Exotic Item

Just got back from the market, unpacked my stuff, and thought it looked good enough to shoot, so I did.

There was also a huge bag of salad greens I couldn't figure out how to add to the composition (such as it is).

But one of these items is a seldom-seen one, one I frequently do without because it's simply not available, although it should be. Right, the green onions. Apparently not used much in French cuisine, although I use them in salads and Chinese cooking, and, tomorrow, scrambled eggs with green onions, potatoes, and salami, Duke's at the Tropicana style. You can buy grass-thin green onions at the Asia store most of the time, but they're expensive.

The strawberries (Cléry variety, I believe, the early-ripening ones from around here) are getting cheaper, as is thin asparagus (the way I like it), which usually weighs in at €2 for a 500g bundle. And the peas will probably wind up, some of them, in paglia e fieno, that ham-and-peas cream pasta sauce, although I can't be bothered to buy green and white tagliatelle so that it looks right.

One way you can tell it's spring: everything in the picture is green. In a month, the palette should be more variegated. As should the palate!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Just Another Week

Really? It's been how long since I put up a blog post?

Well, no, it hasn't been all that long. But I'll admit that I was feeling a tiny nag of guilt until I actually thought about it. What have I done, after all, since I put that last one up? Not a hell of a lot. I've sat here at my desk, written a couple of Fresh Air scripts, edited them, and recorded them. I read a very dull book from a university press having to do with a book I'm researching, took some notes, and spent several days cruising around the Internet, finding videos that were more or less relevant, following up leads I found in them, hitting the odd dead end or two, and sending out e-mails to people with questions. Sometimes they wrote back. I nagged some people to pay me and watched the dollar sink against the Euro. I counted my pennies and realized I'd be economizing (to put it euphemistically) for the forseeable future. I cooked cabbage blossoms and asparagus, indulged in a small basket of strawberries, which were nice, and thanked heaven I know so many ways to prepare pasta.

And it turned beautiful outside. As I type this, it's beautiful outside: upper 60s (F), sunny, very slight breeze. I just came back from a nice walk which could have been a lot nicer: I bought a very limited edition reprint of some magazines I need for my book research, which cost me more than I could afford, but which will be invaluable in getting this project out the door so my agent can sell it. I was lucky: most places have already sold out. I've been gnawing my fingernails waiting. This morning, I found a note in my mailbox which said La Poste had a "paquet volumineux" for me at the post office. The one across the Comédie? Nope. The one up the hill by the Prefecture? Nope. The one a mile from my house? That's the one! Not that, after 30 minutes of two women running around, they found it. Nope. Sorry. (My own theory, based on the crossouts of the date on the slip, is that the slip went into the box today and the lazy post person just didn't bother to ring the bell and the package is on its way back and I can get it on Monday. I hope so, anyway. I'm screwed if it's lost.)

But it was a nice walk there and back. Really.

Still, is that worth writing about? I just did: you be the judge. But it's symptomatic of something larger: not much happens here. When it does, I tend to write about it. But mostly stuff doesn't happen. France's seventh-largest city, but that doesn't mean much. I suspect the gap between Paris and whatever's in second place is pretty big. And that the next step down is, too. Sure, we have a huge art museum, but it's stuffed with mediocre art. It gets some interesting travelling shows, but the temporary show right now is drawings from the museum's own collection. Across the Esplanande from that, they're taking down the last dull photographic show to, most likely, put up another one. Yes, there's an opera, but I'm not big on opera, and anyway, the repertoire is as dull and stereotypical as you might expect from a provincial company in France's seventh-largest city.

In short, things move slowly here, and the good stuff often isn't on the surface. Look at that photo at the top of this post. I went out to shoot sometime this winter because I was bored, and I sure didn't get much.  That was one of, I think, two pictures I shot that day. There's not much in it, on the surface. But I see things you don't. That sandstone building with the shuttered window and the balcony is actually triangular and has a courtyard. It's a very old building and has very high walls, and fascinates me every time I walk past it. No idea what it is or if anyone lives there. And much further up the road, if you look carefully, it takes a crook to the right, at which point there are a couple of places where people take lunch outdoors in nice weather (it had just rained in the photo) and in a minute, you're near some interesting places. Anyone who visits me here and gets the guided tour is likely to walk this street at some point because it leads to some interesting bits of local history. But it sure doesn't look like it here.

So this next week is likely to see more of the same: me surfing around, with luck reading these magazines if La Poste finally finds them, occasionally standing up, impatient with hanging around this tiny apartment, still crowded with unpacked boxes from my move here in 2008 (the landlord lied, as I may have noted: he told me the place was 50 square meters and when he sold the place at the end of last year a guy with one of those little laser-measurers came here and did his thing and informed me that the place was 44 square meters, of which two were the balcony, so considering I moved from a 60 square meter place in Berlin, you can see why it's tight), and putting on my hat and walking off up the hill to see what, if anything, has changed.

And probably nothing will have. And if it has, it very likely isn't worth noting here.

But there will be blog posts for the forseeable future. Because things do change that are worth noting. Because I'm certain I'll be travelling again before long. And because this place remains worth looking at.

UPDATE, SATURDAY: La Poste found my package! They even called to tell me. Three minutes before closing time. But I'll be back there on Monday, make no mistake...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Small Experiment

Anybody ever eat this?

Here's a little closer-up shot:

Cabbage flowers, picked up at the market yesterday. I'm going to cook these as tonight's vegetable side, steamed, and then dressed with olive oil and lemon-juice, as suggested by the nice lady I bought them from. Expensive: €3 for this small bunch, which still ought to make a decent amount of vegetable if it doesn't lose too much water.

Wonder what they taste like?

* * *

And the answer is in:

Kind of dark and out of focus, but here's the cabbage flowers, chopped into one-inch segments, steamed, and dressed with olive oil and lemon, with some salt to bring out the flavor. As you might expect, they tasted a bit like broccoli, that same kind of bitterness with an undercurrent of sweet, and the texture was very nice, with fibrous stalks and smooth leaves. The tips, with the flowers, were sort of a cross between broccoli and asparagus. Very, very nice, and I'll do it again when/if I see more.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lazy Weekend

Yes, spring is, slowly, coming to us.

This is what it looked like when I got back from the market yesterday. First, there's a basket of strawberries, clairettes, I think they're called, which look mighty good. Larger than the garriguettes which are our usual berries. Then, two bundles of asparagus, bought from an old guy who sits on a box next to a fish-seller's trailer. He always has one or two miscellaneous things and a pot of luques olives, and I think he must do it just to have something to do. At two euros a pop, though, I couldn't say no, and one of them became a salad last night and was just fine. Pretty lousy photo, though, so let's turn it around.

Hm. Even worse, but it does show the bag of pine nuts and the basil plant, the latter of which was already in the house. The pine nuts will combine with the basil to make pesto, and I'm very curious how it'll taste. This tiny-leaf basil, sometimes called "Provençal" basil, is far more peppery than the "lettuce-leaf" kind, which tends to be sweeter. But as you can see, things haven't really jumped off yet. Patience.

* * *

As I was walking back from the supermarket yesterday, I just missed the human tower. I've always wanted to see one of these things, and here was one dismantling before my eyes. It, like the medium-sized orchestra and folk-dancers, the miniature buildings, and the free soup, were all parts of the Catalan Tourism expo on the Place de la Comédie this weekend. Countless young Catalan folk ran around doing things, and there were a few kiosks where you could pick up brochures about stuff to do in Catalunya, which apparently includes golf and gambling. I picked up some of the brochures, but they're not very informative. For instance, I don't equate "language school" with either "tourism" or "vacation," let alone "culture."

But, after my couple of days on the Valencian coast in late January, I'll admit to being curious about the nearby bits of Spain, and having discovered through this shambling exhibition that one of my favorite Romanesque paintings is in one of the churches in the Vall de Boí there and that they're UNESCO sites just makes me more eager to get over there and to Catalan France north of Perpignan. Won't happen until a buncha money falls out of the sky, sad to say, but I bet it'll happen sometime.

This all got me whipped up to get on the tram out to the Chateau d'Ô for Hérault Tourisme's presentation of the region around me, but then I realized it'd be a tram ride out there and back since it was too late to walk, and, by the time I finished the day's work, even that wasn't so alluring. I'm sure they'll have another outing for the press soon, and I promise I'll write that up. The local travel bug's been annoying me ever since the aborted trip the other day, and I'm itching to get out of town at least for a day. Today, however, was not that day. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A (Short) Day Out

Word came down from on high that Geezer Pete was going to pay a visit. About time, I thought; I hadn't seen this guy in years and years, and, since he'd moved from the idyllic Buckinghamshire countryside to a remote location far from the nearest "big town" in Scotland (said town is Dingwall, in case you want to shake your head with disbelief that anyone would move there on purpose), I hadn't seen him. That's been eight years.

Naturally, I assumed that he'd come to his senses after eight winters in remote Scotland, and was thinking of moving down here, so for his two-day getaway, I planned a day of showing him the glories of Montpellier (to be perfectly honest, a day's glory, unless there's something decent on at the Musée Fabre, which there almost never is, is how much this town can give the curious tourist) and a day in a rented car exploring other bits and pieces of the Languedoc. I figured we'd start in Sommières, then hit St.-Martin-de-Londres, then Aniane, and then see what time it was and where we were and go further in one direction or another. I could use a day out of town, actually.

As I expected, he was enthralled with Montpellier itself. Never hurts to ask your guests to arrive on Tuesday morning and whisk them off to the market at the Arceaux. Not much new and fresh there, but the strawberries were reliably red and the asparagus deeply green, and there was a lot of both. There's a farm which shows up on Tuesdays which often has really unusual stuff, and they certainly didn't disappoint this time: they had a basket of cabbage flowers, and another of turnip flowers. A lady shopping there told me you cook cabbage flowers like asparagus and use turnip flowers in a salad. If I'd been cooking that night for myself I'd have tried that advice on, but I decided it'd be a better idea to hit a restaurant. Anyway, my apartment is so small I can't have dinner guests. The walk around town was fine, the sun performed as expected, and Pete kept saying "I can see why you like it here." Later, we stopped for a glass of wine at L'Acolyte, where we sat outside and watched the passing scene, and then moseyed down to Le Chat Perché, whose menu, I'd noted a day or so earlier, had been revised after a long spell of no change. It was as good as ever: Pete started with fresh pea soup with crumbled bacon and had seiches a la plancha, those local cuttlefish sautéed to perfection, afterwards, and I had a great foie gras terrine with a layer of apricots through its center perched on toasted pain d'épices followed by chicken medallions napped with a cream of crayfish-tail sauce. (No, I didn't have quite enough crawfish in Louisiana, thanks.

Today's plan was for me to get up extra early (7am) and be ready to head to the car rental agency at 9 to pick up a car. Which we did: by 9:30 we'd found our way out of the horrid traffic jam of downtown Montpellier and onto a road which, while not the one I was looking for, got us to where we were going, ie, Sommières, in good time. It was a brilliant day to be out, with seemingly every wildflower native to the region, including scarlet poppies, in full blossom, and warm sun cutting a slight chill. Once we found a place to park in Sommières, we wandered around the medieval market square, and then headed up the hill to the castle. I'd seen this hunk of stone overlooking the city, but didn't know a thing about it.

We weren't the only folks up there; a class of schoolchildren and a couple of teachers with them were listening to a woman giving a presentation, but it was easy enough to read the plaque set into the wall you could look over and see the whole town, and to pick out the landmarks on it.

We wandered along the castle wall, looking to see if there were a way in, and noticed that it was pretty much in ruins.

Pretty ruins, but ruins nonetheless. Finally I reached a sign with the plans of restoration noted on it, which plans seem to be a bit behind. We turned around and headed back to where the kids had been, and Pete mentioned that they'd gone through an iron gate, so we, too, did so and found our way inside the castle's walls with the kids. The woman who'd been lecturing them came over and said "I'm from the Department of Patrimony, and we've opened this especially for the kids. You're welcome to join our tour, but otherwise you're not authorized to be here, sorry." We decided not to hang with the kids, and descended into the village on a warren of tiny, narrow streets.

Quite the picturesque town, Sommières.

Back in the car, we tried to puzzle out the route to the road that'd take us between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, the giant limestone escarpment just across from it, and got lost a couple of times in the countryside. A bit (well, a lot) of backtracking later, we finally found it, but not until we'd crossed Sommière's Roman bridge four times. As I remarked as we waited for the light on the bridge to turn green, it makes me a little nervous that the handiwork of people who died about a century after Christ did was all that kept me from falling into the river, but it's the only way into and out of the town, so there we sat.

Springtime made the drive to the mountains even more spectacular than it normally is, and as we came around the corner of Pic St. Loup, and down into the garrigue, Pete noted that the nature of the countryside had changed utterly between where we'd started and where we were now, and I told him that there was more to come, although really, the drive past Pic St. Loup is the closest to Disneyland that the trip would probably get. We drove through several major wine terroirs, and soon enough we were in St.-Martin-de-Londres. We parked by the graveyard, and walked up the hill to the 11th Century church, which was, as usual, closed. Some day I'm going to get into that damn church and see what it looks like inside. Taking a different way down the hill in St.-Martin than I usually take, I stopped to take a picture of Pic St. Loup framed by the village houses.

Back down in the market square, I bought a ham croissant for lunch and as we sat down while I ate it, Pete told me he felt terrible: "wavy" and nauseous, and in bad need of lying down. He didn't look so hot, so we went in search of a pharmacy, but didn't find one. (The shop with the cross on the sign we headed to at one point turned out to be a veterinarian, where we agreed he'd have stepped in if it had been open). But the rest of the trip was aborted, we boogied back to Montpellier and its horror traffic (30 minutes of the trip were spent mired in tramline 3 construction trying to get back to the train-station where the Avis joint was) and, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the trip was over.

Right now, Pete's back at his hotel napping, and I hope he's okay. The trip just left me wanting more, I have to say: it's amazing out there in the boondocks just now, with the blooming fields and countryside adding a grace-note of perfection to the sights. I wish someone would show up tomorrow wanting to see more and whisk me away from the desk here, but instead Pete's taking a plane to England, and I'll be back here transcribing interviews. Still, it was nice while it lasted.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Les Miettes d'Avril

And so I return to France to find spring in full swing. I suspected as much: ornamental cherry trees had just bloomed when I left at the beginning of March, but now we have lovely warm days, full sun, and just a bit of a breeze to cool it off. The market finally has some interesting stuff, all of it green: one place had a sign noting that the leaves in the basket beneath it were not parsley, but, rather, young celery leaves. Interesting idea there. Lettuce is plentiful and cheap, as it never is when it really gets hot and all you want for dinner is a salad and half a baguette, and I just bought my first asparagus and strawberries of the season, have disposed of the former, and will get to work on the latter tomorrow at breakfast. Moreover, Eric the Tomatologist has posted pictures on his Facebook page showing the first buds in his plantation, so I look forward to his return to the market in mid-June.

* * *

And, with the return of spring one's thoughts return

See, Montpellier has this very nice sex shop, very female-friendly, very relaxed, called Lilou Plaisir, which, it turns out, is owned by an American. I was out walking last Sunday, and went past it, as I often do, and here were two little girls, about four or five, avidly looking in the window, squealing at each other, as their father stood there pointing something out. Well, okay, I know the French have a reputation for liberality and that they tend to be fairly rational in matters of sex education, but, well, um...

Naturally, I wasn't going to eavesdrop, but I walked past it again on my way back from wherever I'd been going and looked in there to see what this awful man was telling his daughters and there were two rabbits. Yup, Easter bunnies. Which, as we all know, do have some connection to sex, although I couldn't tell if one was a boy bunny and the other a girl bunny. Given that the gestation time for rabbits is three to four weeks, though, and Easter's not until the last Sunday of April, we may yet find out.

* * *

One thing about Montpellier, we've got us some street art. Berlin was always good for this, but in Montpellier it has a different feeling, as with the Space Invaders guy who put up mosaic depictions of Space Invaders baddies here, mapping them onto a Space-Invaders-baddy-shaped grid over the map of Montpellier, thereby launching an international career. Most of the rest of what I've seen has been wheat-paste paper stuff, which decays rapidly even when jealous rivals don't tear it down before it can decay, and which always seems to appear when I'm least equipped to photograph it. But this took me by surprise:

I found this yesterday on my way home from the market, and I'd already seen a larger piece of the kid on a horse with a full war-bonnet on another wall. What was interesting, though, was that little rectangle just above the kid's head: a business card.

I wasn't totally surprised. During my stint at the English Corner Shop last year, a guy across the street was scrubbing out an old space and, eventually, moving a bunch of bicycles into it. Now, he's open. And how:

It looks better with the grate open, but it's Sunday today, and I wanted to shoot this. I can't think of a better way to advertise that you have a bike shop. And it's the same guy, who trades as You can buy a poster he made inside the bike shop until April 30, and it features another work of his that he stuck up on a parking garage above an indoor market, and is reflected in the wheels of this bike:

I should have shot the other wheel, where the picture's right-side up, but it's on the website, along with a bunch (but not all) of his other stuff. He's good, he brightens up the urban scene, and any street artist who leaves a business card is all right with me.

* * *

Another bit of art that's disappearing at the end of the month is the latest photo show at the Pavillon Populaire over on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I'm beginning to think that the people who curate the shows there are way too academic for their own good. This one's called Aires de Jeux, Champs de Tensions, which translates as "playgrounds, fields of tension," I believe, and is subtitled "Figures of urban photography in Europe since 1970." I've never seen such forgettable work so well hung and lit. Well, maybe that's not true: I certainly saw a lot of forgettable photography when I lived in Berlin, but hey, I forgot it!

This show brings together 14 photographers who seem to be competing to see which one can make the most depressing, uninteresting, piece of black-and-white (although to be honest, a lot of it is in color). There are a lot of pictures of pre-1989 Eastern Europe, including a long, long, long series of badly-printed (intentionally) blue photographs called "At Dusk" by Boris Mikhaïlov that takes up much of the second floor of the exhibition. There, you can see people in a blasted landscape walking here and there, and, in a lot of cases, vomiting or collapsing. Fun. Other intentionally badly-printed work by Sergej Vutuc depicts skateboarders amid the scratches and blobs, and a huge mural by Octavian Trauttmansdorff, showing people in a shopping district. Trauttmansdorff develops his film in polluted water from a nearby river, allowing the chemicals to make his statement. There are also moving pictures, again competing to see which can be more annoying. Muntean-Rosenblum's "To Die For" slowly pans across a parking lot filled with figures who've frozen by their cars as a female voice intones a  horrible text in the second person dealing with, I dunno, Time or something. Four minutes of your life can be lost to this if you choose. The whole place rings with the grinding sound of two really stupid films by Christoph Rütimann, where the camera follows a track in imitation of a skateboarder, hence the titles bearing the word Handlauf, or "hand-journey." The only "name" in the show is Wolfgang Tillmans, with four photos from his "Subways in London" series, shot so close that it's nearly impossible to figure out what's what, resulting in both the kind of claustrophobia one feels in a packed tube train and the abstraction of a long journey on one. Still not his best work, though.

Anyway, there's absolutely no need to go into the Pavillon Populaire until after Easter, and even then, if this ludicrous hyperintellectual curation continues, you're probably better off outside in the sharp spring sunlight.

* * *

Off for a car-trip on Wednesday. Stay tuned for more photos, since we have absolutely no idea where we're going.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

From A Mazda 6

Time to clean up the miscellaneous bits and pieces from my trip, since I'm now back in France (and I know I am because my phone was off when I arrived: Orange decided I hadn't paid my bills, and I've got to root through the papers and find proof that I had, but I paid again anyway so I could get back to work).

* * *

I really must stop taking trains while exhausted. Leaving Montpellier on a 7am train, I dozed off almost immediately and almost missed my plane to the States: I awoke suddenly in a station, not having heard the announcement, and noticed everyone getting off. Charles de Gaulle Airport? Nope: Eurodisney. The nice lady at the info booth assured me that there was plenty of time to catch the next train, and I did, but I lost an hour there. One of the few interesting things in the station was this sign, which I bet you don't see anywhere else. It warns kids, in English, French, and Dutch, to hold onto their mylar Mickey balloons so they don't drift upwards and short out the trains. 

* * *

Finishing off my report on edibles in Austin, I should note a few more excellent meals. As I mentioned, I went to Uchi with my pal Ms. Z, only my taste buds were acting up and I didn't get much out of the experience. Naturally, everything came back the next day, so when Ms. A wanted to go out to dinner, I figured we should try its new sister restaurant Uchiko, which advertises itself as "Japanese farmhouse dining." Maybe Japan's changed a lot in the ten years since I've been there, or I ate at the wrong farmhouses but these restaurants both seem to me to use Japanese cuisine -- sushi aside -- as a jumping-off place. The sushi is very much in the tradition, but the other dishes are simply inspired by Japanese esthetics. Portions are tiny, yet one leaves satisfied, and attention to detail borders on the obsessive. Not that this is a bad thing at all; it's part of what makes it so satisfying. Since it's now a couple of intense weeks since I ate there, only one of Uchiko's dishes remains in my memory: little lengths of fermented rabbit sausage (hey, that's better than it sounds; both salame and mortadella are fermented sausages, you know) placed in a row with halved baby vegetables with their greens still on placed between them, the greens having been flash-fried and the bottoms steamed. There was an exquisite sauce, but I should have been taking notes instead of enjoying myself, right? Wrong. 

Another "fine dining" experience is available at Barleyswine, a rather chaotic place hidden in plain sight under a neon sign for another restaurant on South Lamar. It's similar to Uchi/Uchiko in that it features small portions, expertly prepared. The seating is rather odd: tables for six bolted to one wall, or dine at the bar. No reservations are accepted, but if you call, they'll put you on the waiting list and call you when you're getting close. I had an amazing opener of smoked fish and potato-stuffed pasta, and a scallop with parsnip, vanilla, saffron, and buttered leeks was pretty fine, too. The bacon-wrapped rabbit (again with the bunnies!) with quick-pickled carrot (eh) and beer creamed spinach (not a success) was the only disappointment. Great beer and wine selection, and yes, if you sit at the bar you can watch them make up the orders, even if you can't quite figure out what they're doing. 

And for really fine dining, let me add my meager voice to the mighty chorus of praise for Franklin Barbecue, which started in one of Austin's 1300 food trailers and then took over a failing sit-down BBQ joint on E. 11th St. Probably the best brisket I've had at a commercial establishment, but after 45 minutes in line, they'd run out of ribs and I ordered a sausage, which, as it is in most barbecue joints in Texas, isn't such a good idea. Three excellent sauces are on each table, and the sides were also fine. You have to stand on line and you may not get in. I did, and I did, and I'll do it again. 

* * * 

As for last words on SXSW, this picture, shot at Book People in Austin, the city's great bookstore, shows how some people wish it were, but not, thank heaven, as it is. 

New York, where I went for a project I can't say anything about at present, was fun but exhausting, and expensive as all git-out. I had a $40 pizza (well, the bill was $40, but $8 of that was a Platonic ideal of a caesar salad) which wasn't very good (what was that weird sweet taste?) here, excellent ramen here (thanks to my cousin Jim), and, as always, remarkable food at Grand Sichuan with an assorted cast of weirdos. 

* * * 
A month is way too long to be on the road, so I'm glad to be back. At the market for the first time in a month, there was nice asparagus and strawberries in profusion which were still too white to be convincing. It feels like the year's begun again, so let's just hope it gets better from here. 
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