Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mountains, Rain, and a Walled City

Some weeks ago, my old friend John, who, in the years since I've last seen him,  has acquired a doctorate in archaeology, a post at the University of Guam, and a new wife, informed me that he had to come to Europe for a conference and had added some vacation time to that so he and his wife could do some travelling. Montpellier was on the list.

Everything should have been perfect. Oh, it was a little late in the year, sure, and it was neither as sunny nor as warm as it usually is down here, but that shouldn't matter. And then our recent storms hit. More rain than is normal for this time of year. More severe winds than usual. And John had rented a car for three days.

They got in on Friday morning, with intermittent showers, and of course the hotel wasn't ready yet. (He'd managed to score a room at the Hotel du Palais, about which I'd heard good things, which he confirmed: room small yet comfortable, location unbeatable). We walked around town, but the storm held off until we were eating dinner, when it pounded down for a short bit. Fortunately, that was while we were inside, and it didn't start up again until all concerned were back home.

I'd wanted to test out my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour on someone, and now I had my experimental subjects. Picking up the car the next morning, we did the usual ritual of getting lost getting out of town, but my many expeditions with E. and J. over the summer has taught me a lot about getting in and out of Montpellier despite the horrid one-way tangles and badly-marked roads. Soon we were on our way to the first stop, Sommières, where I learned a valuable lesson: park at the ruins of the supermarket that got done in by the 2002 flood and walk across the Roman bridge into town. It was sprinkling on and off, but the car, a great honking Ford thing, was dry enough, and after we'd run around the town some -- it being a fine introduction to the villages dotted around the area -- we got back in the car, pointed ourselves through the vineyards, and headed to St. Martin de Londres via the road which goes between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, with the two mountains appearing and disappearing in the mist from the rain showers which were getting stronger.

We surprised a small herd of wild boars just past the mountains as we headed down into the valley which took us to St. Martin. There, we jumped out of the car, climbed the hill, and looked at the 12th century church and surroundings. This is where the lucky tourist begins to see the magic set in. There's no explaining it, but this tiny once-walled village really has It, whatever It is. It also has a very good little restaurant that makes better-than-average pizzas, and we repaired there for a late lunch.

The next stop was the Pont du Diable and St. Guilhem le Désert, if the rain allowed. It did and it didn't. It was coming down hard enough that we didn't even bother to get out and walk to the bridge (it's visible from the highway anyway) and turned off to the road up the mountain to St. Guilhem in the last gasp of the rainstorm. The Hérault River was in full force, thundering along with plenty of white water, a couple of flash-floods crept across the road, and at one point, a spume of water shot out of a hole in the mountain right by the river, making a dramatic temporary waterfall. This just made St. Guilhem all the more atmospheric when we got there. There's a stream which goes through the town, and it was right up to the top of its banks, making lots of noise. John, as a card-carrying UNESCO consultant, was blown away by the town, its ruins up the mountain, and the near-perfection of the church, a masterpiece of French Romanesque architecture. The absolute lack of tourists, too, contributed to the atmosphere.

So I'd just proved that the Greatest Hits tour worked. John was ecstatic, we'd hit lunchtime perfectly, and we were back in Montpellier by 5:15 in the afternoon, plenty of time for some downtime and preparation for dinner.

The next day, John had two goals. First was to see Nîmes, with its Roman stuff. Second was to go to Aigues-Mortes, a walled city which had once been an important port, not only to see the sights, but to look at the surrounding area, its salt flats, and the way it had silted up, killing the port. He does a lot of work with the archeology of climate change, and he suspected that Aigues-Mortes would confirm a lot of his theories.

We got to Nîmes and did the usual -- the Roman temple, called the Maison Carrée, and the arena -- and would have headed up the hill to the other temple, but we were running out of time, and really, Aigues Mortes was the most important. It's conveniently located between Nimes and Montpellier, and, being a major tourist attraction, it was easy enough to find. And sure enough, it had walls.

We walked in through a main gate and soon found ourselves in the center, where the church that St. Louis used to launch the two last Crusades in 1248 and 1270 is still standing.

As you can see from my typically awful photo, there is lots and lots of tourist tack in town, with lots of souvenir shops open even on a Sunday afternoon. And there were even some (French) tourists! 

The big attraction, however, is the Constance Tower, built to defend the king's house from everything else. The King not only led Crusades out of here, he hung out a lot because the town was built expressly to be the French kingdom's port on the Mediterranean. It wasn't until 1481, 223 years after the port in Aigues-Mortes was developed, that the kingdom of Provence joined with the French crown, at which time the combination of the harbor silting up and the far better facilities in Marseille transferred the royal port over there. Some 204 years later, in 1685, the Edict of Nantes was revoked and being a Protestant became a crime. This caused another uptick in Aigues-Mortes' fortunes, because the towers in the walls became prisons to hold Protestants, many of whom were found right in town, while others came from neighboring communities: the entire Languedoc was a hotbed of Protestantism. 

The Constance Tower is the one visible in the first photo here with the lighthouse sprouting out of its top, and you can go up it and along some of the ramparts for €7, unless you can provide a magic card which says you consult for UNESCO and get in free. It's a pretty cool building (considering that it was a prison) and has a great view of the town from the roof. 

In addition, there are two levels to the tower, and a small window set in its roof, which slightly lessens the gloom -- although today, electric lights also help. 

We didn't even go out to the ramparts, becasue once again dark was settling in, and John had his sights set on something one could see from the tower's top:

That's salt, and they've been pulling it out of the salt flats since the first century AD, when a Roman engineer named Peccatus (an interesting name for all you Latin scholars out there) opened the salt works there. Today, in season, you can visit them by driving to the Sauniers de Camargue plant and getting on a little train which takes you around the modern version of Peccatus' enterprise. Salt-water seagrass grows alongside the road as you go there, and John was happy that his assumptions about what had happened there were apparently correct. 

From there, we headed to Grau de Roi, which wasn't, as I'd thought, just a summertime beach community, but also had a small working fishing fleet. We walked down a short street to the beach, and the Mediterranean stretched before us as dark came on. I made a mental note to come back some time and check out some of the fish restaurants, which were intriguing and not as commercial-looking as some of the others I'd seen. 

Like the ones in Sète, which was our last day's journey. John wanted a plate of raw seafood, and that would be Monday's lunch. To whet our appetites, we climbed the hill in the middle of the town (in the car: we're not stupid) and looked at the panorama from there. There was a bit of haze, so I'm not sure we could see all the way to Montpellier, but there was a great lot of high surf crashing into the breakwaters and the beaches beyond. I'm no judge of these things, but it looked like it was a rare instance of good surfing being possible in the Mediterranean. We walked into the center of the lookout area, where there's a huge cross and a sound installation which was turned off for the season, and John kept staring at the rocks at our feet. "There's a lot of pottery here," he said, picking some up. Then he grabbed another rock. "A stone tool." Really? "Sure. You can get one or two of these breaks naturally, but this has obviously been worked." Great: an unknown Neolithic site right in the middle of Sète. Stupidly, I didn't take the tool home with me, so it's still up there -- along with who knows what else. 

We were about to head down, but saw some signs for another panorama, at a site called Pierres Blanches, white rocks. Curious, we headed down the other side of the hill and found a parking lot. It's a nice park, with lots of local cedars and pines, from which you can see a lot that the other, higher, vantage doesn't show, particularly to the west and north. On a clear day, you can evidently see the Pyrenees, which I certainl didn't expect. You can also see all the oyster beds in the Étang de Thau from both of them, so after John paid his respects at Paul Valéry's grave in a dramatic hilltop cemetery, we headed back down for a lunch of local seafood. A great end to a tour of the immediate area, I thought. 

So this morning, after a visit to the market to stock up on local cheeses and sausages, they headed to catch a train which will take them to Milan tonight, and, tomorrow morning, to Venice. 

Now...who's the next lucky person who gets to take this tour going to be?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Broccoli and the Cascade of Umami

Over here at the Broke Not Poor kitchen laboratories, where we develop recipes for the 99%, of which we are a charter member, our skills are being tested to the max these days. My book still hasn't sold, an annual magazine that usually takes a piece from me and pays nicely passed me over this year, and there doesn't seem to be any other work out there. This weekend, the cash-on-hand was €.52. Fortunately, during the orgy of spending which followed my €82 royalty check a couple of weeks ago, I laid in some supplies, so daily outlay is at a minimum. It's always important to do this when you have the resources, so that when you don't you can eat well.

That's why I was looking forward to last night's dinner. The first broccoli has come into the markets, which means that fall is on its way out, but I like the stuff so much, with its bitter/sweet ratio so easily tweaked by the flavor the Japanese call umami, that I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with it and maybe finding one or two more things to do with it. (Umami isn't translatable exactly, which is why it's entered the vocabulary unchanged, but "savory" almost gets it. It's more than just "salty," in any event, and the variety of soy sauces found in East Asian cooking, as well as Thai fish sauce, are major sources of it. For further discussion, of course, there's Eric Gower, the chef who made me aware of it first.)

At any rate, the local supermarket had a recent sale on broccoli, with 500g (one pound) going for €.90, so I picked up a hunk and brought it home. Half of it got steamed as a side-dish for something else, but I also knew I'd be making an old winter standby for the first time, broccoli and pasta. For that, I assembled some ingredients.

Okay, here's all there is to it. Got your spaghetti, parmesan, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, optional red chiles, and the broccoli. (The garlic's sprouting a long stem because I buy it by the braid when I find good stuff: I don't like running out.) There's also a 1/2 cup measure there, for reasons we'll soon see. 

The expensive items here are the olive oil (€7.50 for a liter, locally grown and processed in Aniane), and the anchovies. I get salt-cured anchovies, which are nuttier and far less bitter than oil-cured ones, which is what most Americans can get. The ones pictured haven't been split and boned yet, an easy enough process, but the fact that each one gives two halves means that if you're using oil-cured ones, you should use four, not two. And salt-cured anchovies are becoming more findable in America, too. You can even get them from Amazon, believe it or not. 

The first thing to do is to cut up the broccoli. First, trim the florets from the stalk -- but keep the stalk, although the bottom half of this one is kind of funky and got tossed. 

Next, peel the florets as best you can. The more unpleasant, sulphurous tastes in broccoli are in the skin, and in this partially-peelsed floret, you can see the good stuff where the skin's been peeled away. 

Then, cut the florets into smaller florets and peel and matchstick as much of the stem as you like. 

Now heat some olive oil in a pan and toss in some garlic. 

I took that up close so you could smell it. When the garlic's sauteed for a minute (not much more: you definitely don't want to brown it) take the pan off the heat and add the anchovies, chopped roughly, and, optionally, the chile peppers, cut up. 

Stir them vigorously, and the anchovies will start to dissolve. The oil will look a little dirty. There's your umami starting to happen. Return the pan to the heat and throw in the broccoli, stems first, followed by the cut-up florets. Don't "stir" so much as put your spoon underneath this and lift, incorporating the pan's contents to the broccoli and letting it sautee just a little. 

Then, take that 1/2 cup of water and toss it in, and cover the pan for two minutes or so. When you re-open it, you'll notice that the broccoli's turned a darker green. It'll also be steaming, which is good: you'll want to boil off as much water, stirring occasionally, as you can. This is a good time to start your pasta, incidentally. 

Once most of the water is boiled off, take the mixture off the heat, and lower the heat. When the pasta is done, put the pan back on the low heat and introduce just enough olive oil to make it like a sauce. This helps it mix with the pasta. 

When the pasta's done, drain it and put the broccoli mixture into the pasta pot, return the drained pasta, and, once again, incorporate the broccoli mixture by lifting it from the bottom. Sprinkle some parsley and lots of Parmesan as you do so, then dump it into your pasta bowl, sprinkle some more umami-laden Parmesan onto it, and serve. 

I forgot to put the parsley in until the last minute, so it's kind of clumped up there in the photo. I should also admit that there was too much broccoli in this to balance the anchovies and Parmesan with perfect success, but it was far from a disaster, and the photos turned out pretty well. Maybe this is because I spent a little time cleaning up the work area for the photo shoot. 

As for notes, yes, you can do the exact same thing with cauliflower, if you'd like. And yes, you can use other pasta shapes: I'd say penne would work, as would farfalle. 

Tonight, I have some leftovers which have likely gotten better since I made them, so that's taken care of. Tomorrow, as always, is another day. Don't forget, you can help keep me alive until the book sells by donating via PayPal with the button right over there on the right underneath the "Broke, Not Poor"  label, your clickthroughs via Amazon on any of the cookbooks make me money (as will that link to the anchovies, above, and although 800g is a hell of a lot of anchovies, they'll keep, refrigerated, until you're out -- and really, they're vastly superior to the oil-cured ones) and my Kindle publications, too, pay off each month. 

And now, I think I'll step outside into this glorious fall weather we're enjoying, because stepping outside isn't going to be enjoyable that much longer as the winds come howling out of the Cévennes and winter comes to the Languedoc. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Museums, Mme Merde, and Mmmm: Miettes

This will come as something of a surprise to those who've known me a long time, but I went to my first live show of the year a couple of Sundays ago. (The one song I saw at SXSW doesn't count). This is a combination of my decreasing professional involvement in music, my extreme fatigue with it, and the fact that here in Montpellier, almost no music of interest comes here during the course of the year. True, earlier this year Wire was in town, but I had no money whatsoever for that one. Last year, except for an impromptu visit by some Austin-based musicians, there was nothing at all.

This show, however, was by someone I've known for a long time, John Cale, who's always interesting. And it was also in the Rockstore, which is the second-closest live music venue to my house. (The closest is the bar-restaurant next door, and Cale is far and away not awful enough to play there. I keep hoping their live-music experiment will fail, which is possible: everything else there has). Except for Wire, they've never had a single act which has interested me, and, as you can see from the upcoming events, that's hardly a surprise. (The Gladiators were interesting when I saw them in the '80s, but as far as I know the original guys are all dead, or there's only one guy left, another of those skeletal reggae bands that plods the circuit, trading on old glories).

Besides Cale, who was having an off night and seemed to be ill, I was curious to see the venue, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and festooned the center city with banners showing performance shots of (mostly French) bands I'd never heard of performing there. It's astonishing how the French could have such a huge rock scene without any of it ever leaking out to the wider world. Well, it is unless you've investigated it and noticed how utterly unimaginative 99% of it is: a journalist friend of mine in Paris once took me to see RCA France's big new signing La Fille du Pirate (The Pirate's Daughter -- great band name, huh?), at the Olympia, the legendary Paris venue, and I remember them chiefly because it was such a dull show. Big money had changed hands, and to such little effect. But the reason all the banners were up was because the Rockstore owners had thrown up their hands a couple of years ago, unable to make the place work any more -- and the city of Montpellier stepped in and bought it from them! Just imagine that happening in any U.S. city!

The Rockstore turned out to be a classic old rock venue. According to the unofficial city historian, it was a Protestant temple (they're not called churches here, and this area was a real hotbed of Protestantism early on), then an auto shop. It also must have been a theater of some sort after that. It's got the classic velvet curtains which, if washed, would probably give up a 60-40 mix of tobacco and pot residues, an unused balcony, several bars, and an agreeably dingy ambiance. Too bad the local taste diverges from mine so much; I felt pleasant nostalgia for the duration of the evening.

* * *

I saw the Rockstore again on Monday, when the pleasant combination of non-rain and having €10 in my pocket sent me to the local laundromat. (I have a washing machine, but it was broken by the idiot movers when I came here from Germany, and is number 1482 on my list of stuff I have to take care of).  There I sat and watched as troops of immaculately-clad teens in the latest hip-hop and what they call here "street" fashions were herded in and out of the place, part of what I guess was a video shoot at the Rockstore. The entire street was lined with trucks, but this wasn't a huge surprise because a note had appeared on all the doors on our street warning us that someone called Firstep Productions was going to invade.

I totally lucked out that day: almost the minute I got back to the house with my toasty dry laundry, the skies opened up again. This almost incessant rain has probably been welcomed by the local farmers, although it's inhibited my ability to hit the market to buy what they're growing. But it's also had an effect on my neighborhood. All the windows in my house face across a small courtyard, but one, the one in the bathroom. I frequently look out that one to see what's happening in that direction: remove the buildings facing there, and I could see the Comédie. The coming of the stormy season was presaged by huge winds, and one day as I looked out the bathroom window, there was a lonely straw hat which had blown onto one of the roofs, as potent a sign that summer was over as could be. Yesterday, though, I looked out to see this sign on the same roof:

What on earth could this be? A sign from some demonstration on the Comédie which had blown away? That was the only thing that I could think of, but it sure had landed square, and it had that nick out of its top. Figuring "megots" was some acronym, I checked the dictionary to make sure, and found myself grinning.

Megots means cigarette butts. And this sign was a clearly aimed at la famille Merde upstairs. The entire courtyard is littered with cigarette butts those folks throw out their windows, hundreds of them, and if you remember, it was just a couple of weeks ago that one of Mme. Merde's megots started a fire in some garbage they'd also thrown out the window. And now that I thought about it, I did remember how many butts had collected on that roof over the summer until the rain washed them away. Given how much cigarettes cost here, the Merdes must be fairly well-off. She sits in the hallway at night yelling into her cell phone and smoking, and in the morning we can see where she was by the pile of ashes and butts on the floor.

I salute whatever neighbor put this there, and hope it does some good. There are, however, several more windows to toss butts out of, and they do, so I'm not too optimistic about this campaign.

* * *

Getting older is no fun, but if you're in Montpellier, it does have its advantages. The other Sunday, bored, I went for a walk and noticed that a place I'd been curious about was open, the Pharmacy and Chapel of the Work of the Misericordians. I walked in and read the signs, but wasn't really interested: the Misericordians were a laic order founded shortly before the French Revolution to provide food to the poor, and were interrupted in this by the Republicans, who secularized them. The Montpellier chapter also provided medical assistance, thanks to the local medical school, and had a pharmacy to mix up medicine. As I was reading the signs, the guy who took tickets showed up. I asked him if the sign saying admission was free to those over 60 was true, and he said yes, went back in the office, and presented me with a ticket with three pieces: one to the pharmacy/chapel (which he then gave me a guided tour of -- not all that interesting, actually), one to the Museum of Old Montpellier, and one to the Museum of the History of Montpellier in the 10th to 16th Centuries, also known as the crypt of Notre Dame de Tables.

So there I was, with a free pass to a Sunday afternoon! After thanking the guy for his tour of the ceramic pots in the pharmacy, I headed to the Salle Pétrarque, a fairly ancient building behind a 19th century façade just around the corner. The museum there is a sad, but terribly typical, example of the small-town municipal museum, with odds and ends in its rooms. There were the collections in glass-fronted armoires with hand-written descriptions so faded as to be illegible, corners so dark you couldn't be sure what was in them, and a huge table with a map of the old city, which was pretty interesting.

But I was in a hurry to get to the other third. Notre Dame de Tables was so named because of the money-changers who set up outside, offering trade to the pilgrims on their way to Compostella who needed local currencies. It was also where the city tax collectors sat on tax days and took their shares from the locals. Nowadays the church is long gone, but during the excavations for what is now the Place Jean Jaurès, the foundations and crypt was uncovered, and today a pretty nice exhibition is located there. There are little doohickeys that give you a tour in any one of a number of languages, and I learned a bunch about the local history -- including the connection between the "new" city of Montpellier and the Greco-Roman settlement at Lattera. There's not much on display, because the church got pretty trashed on the way to its final destruction in the Revolution. The narration skips some important bits of early history, at least as far as I've been able to figure it out (I keep looking for a decent one-volume history of this city in French or English, but so far I haven't found a thing). I also noticed, through a hole in the floor, a gigantic number of leg bones, which, assuming some were female, seem to indicate that the long-legged ladies I see around here are part of a proud genetic inheritance.

For those of you who aren't as aged as I am, this threefer is available Tuesday through Sunday for just a couple of Euros, and now that crappy weather is upon us it's an entertaining way to spend a dreary afternoon. Don't expect much out of the pharmacy or the Old Montpellier Museum, but history buffs will be well-served by the crypt.

* * *

In further news The Other Ed and I had lunch yesterday at Omija, the Korean deli/snack bar I mentioned a couple of months ago. They were doing pretty good business, with a young Franco-Asian couple eating there when we arrived, and some black ladies arriving afterwards. We had a platter with some steamed beef with garlic, a bunch of shredded lettuce with some sort of white, garlic-gingery dressing, some rice and beans, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and canned corn (what is it with Europeans and canned corn?), a Japanese chicken nugget, and some fresh mango cubes for dessert. A tiny pot of kimchee served for both of us, and it was pretty tame, but then, this is France, and you can't go all atomic on these folks and expect repeat business. Seven and eight euros for lunch is still a bit rich here in the world of the Broke, Not Poor, but I'm definitely enthusiastic about this place now, and recommend it heartily. The husband of the couple who run it was on duty, and he speaks English if you don't speak French, being half-French, half-Zimbabwean, a combination I can safely say I've never encountered before. I suspect they need all the help they can get, so head on down and chow down.

Thursday, November 3, 2011



Well, that woke me up. It was one of the wooden shutters in the bedroom flying open, so I dragged my sleepy ass out of bed to shut it again. It wasn't unexpected: the winds have been mounting to what I now understand is called an épisode cévenol. According to the chart I saw earlier this afternoon, what happens is warm winds blow in off the Mediterranean rather forcefully and slam up against the mountains (which, conveniently enough, are the Cévennes and their foothills around here). Here's the chart:

So far, Montpellier's river, the Lez, is doing okay, although on a previous one of these, the other day, it flooded out the tunnel under the center of town, meaning motorists had to enter One Way Hell, aka the other way through town, and the attendant chaos caused by Tram 3's construction. They've closed off the walkways along the Lez down in the Ironic Fascism District, though, and there's a red alert that's supposed to be going up any minute. I went and did my dinner shopping early, because I just have a feeling...

Which is interesting, actually. I'll have been here three years in a few weeks, and I'm already able to have hunches about the weather. Well, that's not very hard, actually, since there are basically only two modes: insanely beautiful sunshine (allegedly 300 days a year) and stuff like it's doing outside right now. That makes the seasonal rhythm easier to get into. 

The market, for instance: I now have a pretty good idea what's going to be there, so I'm not so upset when I can't find what I'm looking for because chances are I'm not looking for something I can't find. The guy from Pardailhan has been seen with his turnips -- just a tiny table, but those famous turnips -- and I'm ready for him. I'm searching out things to do with pumpkin and winter squash, carrots (I'm determined to figure out if those weird-looking red ones taste any different than the ordinary orange ones, although apparently orange carrots were developed for the Dutch House of Orange as a propaganda move), broccoli and even cauliflower, thanks to a Facebook friend I turned on to 660 Curries, a great cookbook, who was raving about a cauliflower and spinach curry in that book that I fired up the other night. He was right! 

And, as others have noted, this is the point where we put away the rosés and curl up with those big Languedoc reds. Which is what I did last night. 

Yup, I turned another year older yesterday, or, rather, as the great novelist Ted Mooney pointed out in his Facebook comment to me, it was actually "one day older, and the years don't count." I sure hope he's right, and intuitively, I think he is. So I am now officially older than dirt, and will soon take the tram out to St. Jean de Vedas, where they're doing a lot of construction, look at the dirt, and say "Hiya, youngster."

Thanks to the fact that at the end of October I got a nice $82 check from Amazon for my royalties to date (you all have bought both of my digital publications, right? Right?? Well, there's a gizmo just over to the right of this...), and that I got a couple of nice bottles of Languedoc wine from J and E, I decided that, instead of going to a restaurant like I did last year (I don't think the meal was that good, but I still had my non-smelling-and-tasting problem), I could probably do as well at home if I just figured out what I wanted to do, took my time doing it, and used good stuff.

Something I've always wanted to cook with is magret, which is the breast of the ducks they make foie gras from, so at lunchtime yesterday I wandered down to the supermarket to price it. To my shock, it cost less than the tough steaks they sell here. This, then, sent me racing through my cookbooks. only to find stuff that was either too complicated or used out-of-season ingredients. Weirdly, I found what I was looking for in Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France, which seemed to me, when I bought it and looked through it a couple of years ago, to be insanely complicated. But there was one recipe for magret in the style of the Bigorre region, which was, well, duck breast and potatoes. Oh, and onions and parsley and garlic. But it seemed simple enough to show off its lowly ingredients in their best light. And that magret, of course.

I went up the hill to the covered market and got a slice of duck pâté en croûte, which is to say duck chopped up three ways, a layer of duck-liver mousse separating two different preparations of duck, all wrapped up in a pastry crust (€3) from an intimidating woman who was also selling magret tournedos filled with foie gras. That was the appetizer course. At the supermarket all the magrets but one had vanished since lunch, but it was the perfect one (€5.60), and there were no loose red potatoes so I had to spend €3 on a bag I'd only use a third of. A white onion, as specified in the recipe, added €.80. I had all the rest, which wasn't much. I got a bag of mixed salad greens for the last course, a salad with pears, roasted walnuts, and Carles Roquefort, which I'd bought a hunk of for €5, at M. Bou's in the covered market the day the check arrived. (I've seen this for sale in Montreal, incidentally, and it may also be available in the U.S. Hellishly expensive over there, but so far superior to the more easily-obtainable brands that it's ridiculous). The vinaigrette for this salad would be made with walnut vinegar, which I'd discovered this summer in the Dordogne and turned out to be available here at a supermarket chain I rarely go to, Casino, where J had discovered it. And, to finish it off, I was going to open my bottle of Mas de la Serrane's Clos d'Immortelles, 2008. It turned out to be perfect for the task, complex, spicy, ever-changing in the way their best wines do. Magic.

So we had maybe €15 worth of ingredients, and if I had bought the wine myself, we could tack another €10 onto that. There is no restaurant on earth where I could have gotten a meal like this for that little with a whole bottle of wine. There were some problems: the potatoes were supposed to be cooked in fat rendered from the breast (which worked perfectly, and the duck-fat-plus-potato groove is a well-known and -loved one here in France) and form a sort of cake at the bottom of the pan (not actually a casserole at all), and these potatoes didn't want to do that. The onion got a little carbonized -- okay, totally carbonized -- but I know how that happened. and there wasn't enough of the persillade, the parsley-and-garlic mixture, to make a difference, so next time there'll be more. Some of this was due to the fact that you just can't cook with any subtlety on a damn electric stove. Some of it was first-time inexperience. But there was enough of the magret dish left over for a light lunch in a day or two, and the best news was, when I was scouting for it, I noticed there were jars of duck fat for sale. Now, without buying a whole breast, I can make roasted potatoes with duck fat. I can't wait.

Not all the news around here has been good. I got a letter from the firm managing the building telling me that they'd raised the rent on the Slum. Only €11, but this place is wildly overpriced as it is, given how little of the space is useable. Here's the view from my desk, where I'm typing this, taken on January 1:

That's 90º to my right. Make it 180° and you get this.

That white post where you can see the Mexican restaurant calendar is the problem: It seals off a bunch of potentially useable space. And a lot of the stuff is still in the boxes I moved from Berlin three years ago; I have no idea any more what's in them. This is a tiny space. The bedroom is big enough for the bed and a couple of clothes-hanging things. (I have no idea what they're called, but there's no such thing as a closet in Europe). The kitchen is small enough that there's not enough room to have another person over to eat. The liar who rented this to me told me it was around 50 square meters, or approximately 500 square feet. It's not: it's 44, including two which comprise the balcony. So I've got 420 square feet here, including the tiny bathroom, kitchen, hallway, and bedroom. Not enough. And not worth €680 a month, let alone €691.

There are a couple of problems, though. First, I don't have the money to move. The book project my agent is trying to sell hasn't sold, which we both find very frustrating, because it's gonna be a monster once I start doing it. Second, it's going to be very hard for me to get a place. Working against me are my age -- I should be retired, according to the French, and I'm not -- my occupation -- nobody but nobody works for themselves around here -- and, unfortunately, my nationality. Not many French people like Americans, at least not the French people in charge. Third, this is totally the wrong time of year to be looking. May, when the students leave, some great places open up.

There's a way through this, though: if I'm willing to put a year's rent in escrow, they'll pretty much trust me. So I've got to raise a couple of tens of thousands of euros by next May and pay the inflated rent until then. So maybe six more months here and then...

No way to tell, so I just take it a day at a time. Got some visitors coming soon, and I'm looking forward to that. I also have money for food these days, and that's nice, although it's not going to last forever. We've converted back to standard time, so it gets dark earlier. And when that remarkable sunshine comes back, the sun's going to be a lot further away than it was six weeks ago. It's really confusing to go out into bright sun and realize that it's colder than hell out there.

I've gotten through worse, and I'll get through this. But this place gives me claustrophobia at times, and so I take long walks. Checking what's happening out there, I've made an early New Year's resolution: don't take a long walk during an épisode cévenol. 
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