Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Tennents Special

In the late 70’s I reached 18 years of age. This was the age required for the legal imbibing of alcohol. There were two types of beer. There was “Heavy”, which was a dark beer and the relatively new “refreshing” lager, which was served cold. I decided that being a cool character, I was probably a lager drinker. There weren’t even many brands of lager to choose from. The big two were McEwans and Tennents. The pub next door to the student halls of residence that I lived in, was a tennents pub, so that became my main tipple. There was also a drink called "stout". This was available in bottles, but as it was a drink favoured by pensioner Minnie Cauldwell and Ena Sharples in the television programme "Coronation Street" I never tried it.
Guinness was also available, but it was a bit exotic and unless it was stored and served correctly, you were wasting your money.

In 1978, a pint was 23 pence, if you drank in the pub next to the halls you got 2 pence off for being a student. Some of the more experienced students, mostly those who went to football matches every weekend, drank “screwtaps”. This was beer in a bottle, which had a screw top.

Anyway, when it came to choosing which cans of lager (16 pence each) the most popular was Tennents. They had a clever marketing ploy. On each can was a picture of a “lager lovely”. Despite this being the age of the page 3 pin up in the tabloids, the young ladies were reasonably demurely dressed.

The one that I remember was a former Miss Scotland, (the can on the right) whose name was been linked with the debonair man about town and House of Fraser empire owner, Sir Hugh Fraser.

There is of course a web site for everything, so for those who hanker for the “good old days” This link will take you to an archive of beer and lager cans. It seems that the first can with a twist off lid, came out of the good old U.S.A. It looks more like a brasso tin.

During my third year at university, the drink options increased with the appearance of cider. You could tell the people who started drinking it. They were the ones, who looked ill the next day. Not content just to drink cider, they soon progressed to drinking “Snakebite” which was a half and half mixture of cider and lager. Some pubs refused to sell it, as it had the unfortunate side effect of turning some people into a danger to themselves and others after a couple of pints. My room mate, who was not a big drinker, favoured a “Pink Panther” . This was a snakebite with a dash of blackcurrent. Yeuk!!!
I am heading into a period of leaner finances. Bee Boy and his new woman are moving out on the 27th of this month. This will leave me with only one tenant and 2 empty studio apartments. The smallest studio has not had a tenant since I bought the property.

So no more fresh honey on tap. BB lost/misplaced his set of keys last year, so he continues to leave his door unlocked, which has allowed his friends to wander in and out at will. At least now the building security should improve.

It’s about time that he settled down, having reached the age of 30 last year.

BeeBird is 24 years old and has found a job for a year growing vegetables and delivering veggie boxes to peoples homes. I asked him if baby bees might appear in the near future, but although he is keen, she does not want children for the foreseeable future.

He has already moved all but a few bits and pieces out to his new residence, a two bedroom house with 2 garages to store all the crap which he accumulates as he bumbles along. He reckons that if he continues with apiculture this year, it will cost approximately 10 thousand euros to buy new queens and baby bees. The harsh winter has not done his remaining bees much good and I think that many, many more little bee corpses than usual litter his hives.

I had to leave him a note on his door, because when I went to sweep and wash the stairs and corridor, I found that he has taken my dust pan and broom away with him to his new palace. The corkscrew that I loaned him has also disappeared as has hyperactive man’s wheelbarrow which he borrowed last Autumn. He is a little bugger. Not a bad person, but his brain is not really in gear.

Madame, my remaining tenant has just gone into hospital for a few days for an operation on one of her legs. This should slow her down a bit, but she reckons that she will soon be driving whilst still bandaged up.

I asked her if she needed a lift to the hospital, but she told me that she had already booked her ambulance. An ambulance car came and collected her. In France a large number of vehicles on the road are ambulance vans and cars. One of the questions on page one of the hospital admittance form is “What ambulance company brought you to the hospital?” I presume that your health insurance or top up mutual policy meet or reimburse the costs.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Jeux de société and a bit of shortie - it was bound to end in tears

Yes it was another evening of rip-roaring entertainment at the local school for our local residents' friendly association. The main card game was to be Belote, but we were urged to bring along a game that others could join in and play as well.

I slipped my little pack of Happy Families into my pocket.

However before that, C from my local French family had pointed out that the invitation said that one should not only bring along a game, but also a cake or similar that could be shared with others.

I decided to try my hand at making shortbread, which I have never attempted before. I looked up a recipe on the internet and chose one that I had 3 of the 4 ingredients for. Potato starch powder for thickening soups etc would have to take the place of semolina or rice flour.

I did the weighing and the mixing, the oiling of the baking tray, the rolling out into a flat circle, and put it into the pre-heated oven. When I finally took it out of the oven 25 minutes later, it was still soft, not crispy like the recipe said, but it was starting to go a bit too bronzed.

I sprinkled some sugar on the top scraped it off the tray and left it to cool. It cooled to a rather crispy biscuit consistency, but what the hell. I broke it into 8 rather ragged wedge shapes and stuck them in a small plastic box.

Upon arrival at the school hall, I popped the lid off my box and stuck it on the table which was covered with galettes and other professionally displayed cakery.

I ended up playing belote against 2 fifteen year old girls, with the wife of the president (she is also the mother of one of the 2 girls) as my partner. We were thrashed, but the girls were cheating like mad.

Towards the end of the evening, an elderly gentleman came round the tables pouring out measures of a clear liquid, which he said was at least 50 percent proof. I knocked half of it back and after the coughing stopped, tears were streaming down my face. The others at my table thought that this was extremely funny. (Note to self- I must start practicing drinking strong spirits)

While we were playing, the youngest daughter from my French family and the only person who saw me depositing my shortbread, came up to me and whispered that my gateau was delicious.

When the evening was finally over, I went to retrieve my plastic box and was spotted doing so by the president. “Did you make that?” he asked I admitted that I had and that it was my first attempt. He told me that he had had a piece and really enjoyed it. He went on to say that they had also previously tried making shortbread from an internet recipe, after having received and enjoyed some as a present.

The next day I had an email from the French family saying that my shortbread had been so tasty that they were now going to try making shortbread from an Internet recipe.
When I get my own TV cookery,(surely only a matter of time) programme my first guest will be Jennifer Lopez in "Turning on the tapas"

Friday, 19 February 2010

Making a raclette

Saturday at noon my phone went. It was C, from my local French family. “Have you had raclette?” I was asked. My mind thumbed through the old brain cells in a vain attempt to find some reference point on which to base an intelligent reply. Was it a disease? Some kind of sport perhaps involving the use of tennis rackets as snow shoes? I remembered that in the distant days when I was investigating trailer tents, that Raclette was one of the makes that I looked at.

Of course these deliberations took a mere fraction of a second on my personal super-computer. “I don’t think so” I replied.

“Do you know what raclette is?” I confessed that I didn’t. I gathered that it was some sort of meal involving cheese, so I said that I was available for the experience.

An hour later saw me once again in their kitchen. There was a large platter of thin slices of posh smoked meats and discs of sliced dried / smoked sausage.

A small table had been positioned at one end of the kitchen dining table and on it sat a round electrical plate, with a heating element below, under which were a series of 8 little pizza slice shaped mini-cooking pans.

The apparatus was plugged into the wall near the sink, and the electrical cord stretched across in mid air to said round machine.

I was informed that when they had switched on the machine, it tripped the main power switch, but that they had discovered that by unplugging the fridge freezer, their power supply was man enough for the job.

Apparently there are 2 different levels of power supply, with the higher power option costing more, so they have the one with less juice.

C told me that raclette was a special type of meal eaten only during the winter months. Special raclette cheese is available only during these months. The procedure for eating was explained to me. You put a slice of raclette cheese into your little non-stick triangular pan and place it under the heating element. You take a baked potato and scrape the skin off (I said that I would eat mine with the skin on, so C took it off my plate and scraped the almost non existent skin off my potato. Did I not realise that all the pesticides were in the skin? I said that I wasn’t worried, so she then said that she had not washed the potatoes. I said that I was not worried about that either). Freshly scraped potato on my plate, I had to select some meat and put that on my plate too. The cheese in my little pan was now bubbling away, so I retrieved it and was shown how to tip the cheese out onto my plate. The next step was to eat a bit of potato, cheese and meat at the same time.

This process was repeated until the potatoes and the cheese ran out.

Once I was home again, I looked up raclette in my French / Eng dictionary. I means melted cheese. In the old days before the electric raclette machine, people would place the big round of cheese near the fire and scrape (racler) the melted cheese off it onto the food on their plate. Further searching and I find out that raclette cooking comes from Switzerland

This form of communal cooking, not to be confused with a fondue, now leaps out at me from the weekly publicity, the cheese counters, and in the electrical sections of shops, whereas before I had not noticed the word at all.

Looking at amazon.co.uk. I see that they sell these machines too. The top hot plate can be non stick metal, for cooking pieces of meat or crepes. Some have heated stone tops for searing your pieces of meat, fish or vegetables. The most ambitious not only have the upper cooking surface, but also a fondue pot as well! The Leclerc eco brand raclette grill costs just under 20 euros! There are also recipe books for this form of cooking.

Now time for a siesta before tonight’s community get-together.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Having a Crêpe time - Wish you were here?

The phone goes. The display says that it is my friendly French family and not some Spanish bloke babbling on about Pepito. “Have you eaten?” I reply that I haven’t and immediately get invited over to eat crepes as it is French pancake day (Not held on the same day as the English Shrove Tuesday, which is 2 or 3 weeks later.) Did I want an egg? I said that I would like an egg. Egg? C is cooking it now, so I shoe and coat-up and head out into the cold.

I arrive and the youngest daughter indicates which chair I should sit on at the kitchen table.

My first crepe has got an egg and cheese inside it. The second one has a generous amount of Gran Marnier liqueur on it, the third has sugar on.

M and I reminisce about the first time we had a crepe with Gran Marnier on and for both of us it was on holiday in the South of France.

I have brought a pack of Happy Families cards along and I teach C and her daughters how to play. I lose. S’no faer.

The next day I am walking up my path towards the house when Madam’s bedroom window opens and she leans out and asks if I want to come in for a coffee. I say okay and wait for her to come downstairs and let me in.

Small dog is pleased to see me and jumps up to be petted. I sit down at the table and the coffee arrives via the microwave. Then a plate of folded up pancakes arrive. I am to help myself, so I eventually have three before leaving. It is still Christmas in her living room, the tree is up and still three quarters decorated, decorations and Christmas ornaments are still scattered under the tree. This is because of her bad back and leg, which is slowing her progress in packing it all away. Every night her flashing Christmas lights pulse their blue light out into the garden, much to the annoyance of at least one neighbour 2 gardens away.

“I’m afraid the lights do not belong to me ” I replied apologetically when asked if those damn lights which flash all evening are mine.. they are my tenant’s.

Following on from yesterday’s post about what I have read over the last couple of months. I also listened to Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy “The girl with the dragon tattoo”. “The girl who played with fire” and “The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest”. His writing style really annoyed me, as he kept repeating the same things over and over again, but the storyline was very good. It’s well worth a read, and was voted listeners’ choice 2009 by Audible readers. Altogether, his trilogy has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide (summer of 2009), and he was the second bestselling author in the world 2008. The novels take place in Sweden, mostly in Stockholm. Karl Stig-Erland Larsson (15 August 1954 – 9 November 2004) was a Swedish journalist and writer, born in Skelleftehamn outside Skellefteå. Mr. Larsson died having only published these three volumes. However the main characters Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (a grown up Pippi Longstocking) will live on in a trilogy of films based on the books.

I also read a two volume novel by Christian Signol based on generations of a wine growing family. 1996 : Les Vignes de Sainte-Colombe, tome 1 (Prix des lecteurs du Livre de Poche)1997 : La Lumière des collines, Les Vignes de Sainte-Colombe, tome 2 (Prix des maisons de la Presse 1997) .

With over 800 pages all written in French this took some time to read. I began it in September last year, and put it aside as the constant theme of history repeating itself, began to get on my wick. However, I finally battered through it recently, and it can now rest in peace. The other French fiction book that I read recently was ”Parce que je t’aime” by Guillaume Musso which turned out to be rather Twilight Zone-ish.

And there was me thinking that I was not doing much. The local cinema has been under excelling itself recently in its choice of films, so the first feature film that I have seen there this year is “Gainsbourg – vie heroique http://www.gainsbourg-lefilm.com based loosely on the life of French legend Serge Gainsbourg as he puffed his way through a never-ending stream of cigarettes, and close encounters with Ms. Bardot and Jane Birkin.

The film itself was rather long and in places simply bonkers. There are so many clips of the film and other bits and bobs on the web site that there is not much need to go and see the film.

Monday, 15 February 2010

That's entertainment

One of my Christmas presents was the DVD set of series 1 – 6 of “Trailer Park boys” which is a Canadian comedy. I didn’t realise that Canadians did comedy but it had 5 stars on Amazon. The episodes started slowly, with no gags at all, and continued in much the same vein for all of the episodes. I gradually got sucked in and had to try and ration myself to one episode per day. It is the story of a group of friends who live in a trailer park when they are not doing time in prison for theft, growing cannabis, etc. Well really only one of them lives in a trailer. One lives in a car parked beside a trailer and Bubbles lives in a garden shed. I can recommend people to watch it if they get the chance. There is a further series, a feature film and a DVD of Christmas specials, but unfortunately they are not available in a European format as yet.

I have listened to William Boyd’s Audible audio book “Ordinary thunderstorms” which is a departure from his usual style of writing and was a timely reminder of how the big drug companies might be tempted to bump people off and attempt to cover up fatalities during testing, to reap the huge profits available to a company with a 20 year exclusive licence to produce and supply a new drug. Most of the book is about the “hero’s” attempts to drop out of society into the world of the homeless, desperate and destitute, to avoid a killer who has been hired to kill him and retrieve drug trial information that comes into his possession when owner of the paperwork is killed.

Way back in the early nineties in Bristol, the library service used to have an annual “Black History Month”, promoting the literature of black and Afro-Caribbean writers. It was during one of these months that in amongst the “worthy” writings, I stumbled across the author Walter Mosley and his creation Easy Rawlins. Brutal tales of the black underclass struggling to stay alive in the white dominated U.S.A. Easy mostly survives by doing favors (favours) for people who have come up against life threatening situations in exchange for a car tune up or a meal, often aided by his friend Mouse, a born killer. At least one of the mystery stories “Devil in a blue dress” has been made into a film, with Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals. The two that I read last week were “Bad boy Brawly Brown” and “Six Easy Pieces”

Today I finished “Porno” by Irvine Welsh. Some of you might remember the rather nasty film “Trainspotting” about a group of young druggies in the Leith / Edinburgh area of Scotland. This reunites the main characters,Sick Boy, Rent, Spud, and the increasingly unhinged psychopath Frank Begbie, who survived. Much of the dialogue is written in Glasgow / Leith dialects and rhyming slang, so many readers might give up. Having lived in Scotland and Glasgow for many years, I could hear it all the voices in my head. A depressing picture of life and death amongst the drunks, junkies, and the downtrodden as Sick boy and some of his pals set out to make a groundbreaking pornographic / art movie.

Damn, there seems to be a pattern emerging here. It’s a good job that I have the hilarious DVD’s of series 1 – 6 plus the Christmas specials of the Scottish Comedy “Still Game” written by, and starring Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan to watch. These comic gems follow the lives of 2 Scottish pensioners living in a run down estate somewhere on the outskirts of Glasgow, where there is one pub, one bookies (No not a book shop, but a betting shop) and a small convenience store. In the midst of this desolate and graffiti strewn landscape, where hope is probably some child’s name, they struggle along on their pensions and keep clear of trouble.

Once again I am rationing this one. There are subtitles to aid those who don’t quite understand some of the words that are spoken, but it isn’t a translation into what might pass for “normal” English. Yes, quite a change of scene with this little series, I think you’ll agree.....

On the record player, yes record player, is the album "Moving Waves" by Focus that I used to put on before going out to the student union discos, the track "Hocus Pocus" 

Friday, 5 February 2010

Taking a shower with Cher

Yes, I was teaching English to the nursing students again. In a bit of role play revision, a student was demonstrating posing the questions needed to fill in the hospital admission form.

I had decided that I had a bad leg and took a shower once a week, whether I needed it or not. I took my eye off the ball for a second and of course I was immediately thrown a curved ball. The student was trying to find out why I didn’t shower more frequently and I had said that I had to lean on my stick whilst taking a shower and that it was therefore hard to wash using only one hand.

“Why not you take shower with Cher?” she asked.
Did I mention that the French Health Service is one of the best in the world? No wonder it is Billions overspent if this is the kind of service on offer.
The image of taking a shower with Cherilyn Sarkisian, who will be 64ish on May 20 this year was an amusing one. For example, who would do the singing, and what outfit, if any would she be wearing?

Some confusion ensued as I tried to keep a straight face. I had no idea what she was trying to say, but I mumbled on about Cher the American singer (I am not supposed to speak French as this is their English immersion hour).

Eventually some of the students understood what I was going on about and started to laugh.

Of course the student was asking why I didn’t take a shower with a chair. ...

I must try harder, concentrate more........

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


At the recent annual general meeting of the local area residents friendly society, we reviewed the years happenings, and new committee members were sought.

I sat on my hands, but my friend Rene volunteered me to be on some committee which has 7 members and who meet with the Conseil General about twice a year, but who had not had to attend any meetings at all last year. (I think).

We now have a rough itinerary of events for the forthcoming year, including games evenings, a trad bal on the 1st May, a treasure hunt in town, on foot instead of in cars etc etc.

The membership fee has risen from 8 euros to 10 euros per family.

After the meeting it was time for the real business of the evening. Seeing in the New Year with Galettes, round cake with a hole in the middle (polo mint shape) and wine. Small children whizzed about grabbing pieces of gallette, hoping to find a small porcelain figure in their piece of cake, thus bringing themselves good fortune for the year and the right to be king for the day.

I found a red porcelain fish in one of my pieces and someone popped a gold paper crown on my head.

I received an email requesting my presence at a meeting of the association committee this Monday evening to discuss the recent AGM. I have no Idea why they want me there, but it gets me out of going to an extra choir practice which is scheduled for the same time.

Monday, 1 February 2010

It’s up to you not to hear the call up

A couple of weeks ago I got a notification through the post informing my that it was my duty to go and have my Grippe A (swine-flu) jab, sometime within the next 10 days.

The piece of paper helpfully told me where I was to go to get my injection. Luckily it was in town, so I could walk there.

I set off on Friday morning, aiming to get there for 10am, giving them time to deal with the initial rush of eager dart boards.

It was a bitterly cold day, so I had a hat, gloves and a scarf on to supplement my big coat.

Of course the grippe A clinic was closed all day on Friday. I did my best Gallic shrug and headed home again.

Saturday morning saw me off up the road again. There were people milling about, so I thought that I was probably in for a wait.

I entered the building and followed the signs to the temporary clinic.

No one was at the reception desk, but I heard a whispered, “There’s someone there” and a young lady came to the desk and checked my paperwork.

I was given a form to fill in, a sheet with the properties of the drug which was being used, and a questionnaire which asked me questions like, “Have you read the information sheet on the drug” , “Did the nurse answer any questions that you had about the process”, do you give your consent to be vaccinated” etc etc. Sure enough I had a nurse appear at my side with a pen for the filling in of the form, and she hovered whilst I completed my form.

She tried out her English, which she had not practiced since she left school 40+ years ago. She liked the English language, but also spoke Spanish.

My next stop was to see the doctor, who asked me questions like, have you been ill recently and who also tried out his English.

I then met up with my nurse again and she duly injected me in my left shoulder, once she found out that I was right handed. She told me that only 10% of people had a reaction to the drug, and most experienced only minor discomfort.

On my way out, I handed over my paperwork again and received a vaccination certificate. I was the only member of the public in the clinic while I was there.

The clinics have now been closed and local doctors are taking over the vaccination program.

In the afternoon I went to the cinema to watch a film set in the early 1900’s about the rail service that ran between my town and St Girons. This railway line was later sold to another country and workmen from that country came, lifted the tracks etc and took them away.

It is now a cycle / footpath, under which the new highway, the information highway fibre optic cable runs.

No I am not in to trains, but the proceeds were to go the the Haiti relief fund.

I trundled along and took a seat towards the front of the cinema.

A sheet of wood, covered with a red cloth had been placed on top of some of the chairs and a small DVD player and digital projector perched there, waiting for the off.

It turned out that the actual film was just over 2 minutes long, and had been taken by his great grandfather in law or some such on a day trip on the line.

The film would therefore have been too short for people to come and see said the man, so he had interviewed people who had lived near, worked on, travelled on the line and spliced in their reminiscences to make a 55 minute film. This labour of love had taken 500 – 600 hours.

After the showing which was tough to follow at times as most of the octogenarians were speaking Ariegeoise, some people were asked to comment on the film, so the showing lasted one hour and 5 minutes.

Perhaps this will finally lay to rest the fiction that I don’t know how to have a good time?