Sunday, 31 August 2008

Dishing the dirt

I've been cooking at festivals all summer. I worked for this big Welsh woman and her skinny little husband. They were ok but they had this daughter, same age as mine but three times the size.
Amazingly they allowed her to work front of house. She stood there, with matted hair and squeezed into an unwise mini-skirt, glaring at all of the customers. The kid ruled the roost. And she nicked out of the till, while her mam accused the staff. Everybody was terrified of the no-neck monster.
From time to time you'd hear her voice..."maaaaam"
This kid loved to lord it over the staff and her mam let her. Working mother guilt.
One time the Welsh mam came up to me and said
"this hummus isn't good".
This was exactly the same recipe as I had made the day before, when she loved it.
I could see the kid standing in the background, smirking.
Welsh mam dips her finger in, wrinkles her nose and says "something wrong with it. Erm, not enough garlic I think"
I taste it. Plenty of garlic.
"Not enough cumin maybe" Welsh mam tries again.
The last time she told me not to put too much cumin in.
The kid stomps up, joins in "maaaaam, tell her it's disgusting."
I am seething. I am being told how to cook by a 14 year old chav.
I hold it in.
"Maybe more lemon juice" I say.
When Welsh mam's back is turned, eyes narrowed, I look at the kid, she looks back at me and mutual hatred is established.
I mention the kid's drug taking, an argument about Ketamine, on a post about festivals on my other blog. I don't know how but they find out about it.
The entire staff put me 'in Coventry' for the whole festival. I work alone from 6 a.m. My shifts are getting longer, I am taking more and more responsibility as the rest of the staff, including Welsh mam, skinny dad and fat slag teenager get more and more wrecked.
I am told I must apologize to the chav monster kid.
"But I told the truth, and anyway I didn't name her" I say.
Chav no-neck monster plonks herself next to me, she starts with the psycho-babble she no doubt learnt off 'Trisha':
"I'm feeling hurt, undermined"
What can I do? I apologize.
One morning at 5 a.m. I get up and start cooking. I can't sleep because of the banging techno all night so I might as well get a head start.
Skinny dad is pissed. He is weaving around the kitchen holding their favourite drink: tequila and ginger beer. I'm chopping potatoes.
"Some people can't be trusted" he slurs. "Some people are spies, grasses".
I lose it.
"Well never mind, this'll be my last festival with you" I spit, hacking at the potatoes with spite.
A while later, I am washing vegetables over the sink. I am weeping quietly. One of the crew, a guy who I haven't really talked to, comes over. He sees that I'm crying and says
"Ah, they've been tough on you haven't they? They are all sheep you know. Terrified of [Welsh mam] and her horrible kid. My girlfriend's the worst. A total suck up. That's why nobody would talk to you."
"I'm leaving" I say "this is no fun for me. I'm not enjoying this festival. I'm not getting drunk or wrecked. Nobody even likes my food."
"You are kidding! They love it. You are the person keeping this going. Without you, there is nothing to sell. You write the shopping lists. You make the menu's. You cook it all. Don't go. We need you. Don't mind them."
"Everybody thinks I'm this snotty London cow" I sob "but I'm not. I'm normal, have feelings like the rest of you."
"Aw now, that's not true" he says sweetly.
But I know it is, I can see it in his eyes.
His kindness makes me cry harder.
You know up to then, I almost thought I had imagined it, nobody talking to me, the cold shoulder. Almost worse when you find out you are not paranoid.
The next day, after working five 14 hour shifts, Welsh mam pays me exactly the same amount as before, well below minimum wage. She won't even pay all my petrol to get there which she had promised. I'd seen how much cash went through those tills, and how much was pocketed by the underpaid staff. Not that I would, but as the cook, I was never near the tills and so was guaranteed not to be a thief.
I quit.

Pirates and burners

Last night I joined Barking bateria for a gig on the boat HMS President, moored near Temple on the Thames. We were dressed as pirates. 
It was a beautiful summers' evening and we played on the stern of the boat as people in black tie came in for the charity event. Within a few minutes however we were stopped by the Captain. The police had been called. People were complaining from all around, across the river, in the OXO building, that we were too loud. Of course water carries sound and samba is loud. Another problem was that the mestre (conductor) uses a whistle (important as this is something we can hear over the drums). Every time he blew his whistle, the river rescue team thought that someone had fallen in the water, as this is the same signal used. The harbour master was going past in his boat, very slowly, glaring at us. We tried to play more quietly, without a whistle, but it was useless, we had to stop. 
The charity guests looked at us askance...we were in our pirate finery, all dreadlocks and rambunctious behaviour, half the group on various chemical substances (to the point that we kept missing the 'breaks'). In fact they regarded us as if we were real pirates, dirty, rough and probably criminal, come to mess up their nice party. 
I left and drove out to Epping Forest in Essex. Euroburners, the London branch of fans of The Burning Man festival, were having a party on the same night that it was taking place in Nevada. A whole salmon and a large pot of real cowboy style baked beans was cooked on the massive fire. People were dressed up as Marie Antoinette, or burlesque girls, or cardinals. You felt naked without a hula-hoop. 
We were in a cottage on the edge of the forest. It was very dark and unusually for the South-East one could see the stars quite clearly. People talked about how crap Glastonbury is nowadays(1). Where to go ? Boom in Portugal is good, Mad Max on acid. Nowhere festival in Spain. Secret Garden Party and Shambala in the UK. 
Spoke to an American 'burner', he said "No other country has a festival season like they do in Britain." Which is strange when you think of how awful the weather is here. But the British are a nation of hedonists.
(1) Rumour has it that one of the new camping fields at Glastonbury, constructed out of earth that has been moved from another part of the site, collapsed a week after the festival. A truck is buried in it. This has been kept quiet. But can you imagine if it had happened during the festival? Glastonbury has gotten too big, too commercial, too money-grabbing. Emily Eavis, Michael's daughter, has not got the right approach.

48 questions

I have been interested in this case since the beginning. From the first televised interview of Kate and Gerry McCann I had a gut feeling that something was wrong with this story, something I have never felt in other stories of missing children. I believe that the parents know what happened to their daughter. Recently the police file was released to the media when the case was archived. Below is the list of 48 questions that Kate McCann refused to answer when interviewed by the police. Now I can understand that one would be wary of a foreign police force, of implicating oneself, of certain leading questions, but the list of questions unanswered, which could have helped the investigation, is very telling. I do hope that one day we will find out what happened, that someone will speak up.

1. On May 3 2007, around 22:00, when you entered the apartment, what did you see? What did you do? Where did you look? What did you touch?

2.
Did you search inside the bedroom wardrobe? (she replied that she wouldn’t answer)

3. (shown 2 photographs of her bedroom wardrobe) Can you describe its contents?

4. Why had the curtain behind the sofa in front of the side window (whose photo was shown to her) been tampered with? Did somebody go behind that sofa?

5. How long did your search of the apartment take after you detected your daughter Madeleine’s disappearance?

6.
Why did you say from the start that Madeleine had been abducted?

7. Assuming Madeleine had been abducted,
why did you leave the twins home alone to go to the ‘Tapas’ and raise the alarm? Because the supposed abductor could still be in the apartment.

8. Why didn’t you ask the twins, at that moment, what had happened to their sister or why didn’t you ask them later on?

9. When you raised the alarm at the ‘Tapas’ what exactly did you say and what were your exact words?

10. What happened after you raised the alarm in the ‘Tapas’?

11. Why did you go and warn your friends instead of shouting from the verandah?

12. Who contacted the authorities?

13. Who took place in the searches?

14. Did anyone outside of the group learn of Madeleine’s disappearance in those following minutes?

15. Did any neighbour offer you help after the disappearance?

16. What does 'we let her down' mean?

17.
Did Jane tell you that night that she’d seen a man with a child?

18. How were the authorities contacted and which police force was alerted?

19. During the searches, with the police already there, where did you search for Maddie, how and in what way?

20.
Why did the twins not wake up during that search or when they were taken upstairs?

21. Who did you phone after the occurrence?

22. Did you call Sky News?

23. Did you know the danger of calling the media, because it could influence the abductor?

24.
Did you ask for a priest?

25. By what means did you divulge Madeleine’s features, by photographs or by any other means?

26.
Is it true that during the searches you remained seated on Maddie’s bed without moving?

27. What was your behaviour that night?

28. Did you manage to sleep?

29. Before travelling to Portugal did you make any comment about a foreboding or a bad feeling?

30. What was Madeleine’s behaviour like?

31. Did Maddie suffer from any illness or take any medication?

32. What was Madeleine’s relationship like with her brother and sister?

33. What was Madeleine’s relationship like with her brother and sister, friends and school mates?

34. As for your professional life, in how many and which hospitals have you worked?

35. What is your medical specialty?

36. Have you ever done shift work in any emergency services or other services?

37. Did you work every day?

38. At a certain point you stopped working, why?

39. Are the twins difficult to get to sleep? Are they restless and does that cause you uneasiness?

40. Is it true that sometimes you despaired with your children’s behaviour and that left you feeling very uneasy?

41. Is it true that in England you even considered handing over Madeleine’s custody to a relative?

42. In England, did you medicate your children? What type of medication?

43. In the case files you were SHOWN CANINE forensic testing films, where you can see them marking due to detection of the scent of human corpse and blood traces, also human, and only human, as well as all the comments of the technician in charge of them. After watching and after
the marking of the scent of corpse in your bedroom beside the wardrobe and behind the sofa, pushed up against the sofa wall, did you say you couldn’t explain any more than you already had?

44. When the sniffer dog also marked human blood behind the sofa, did you say you couldn’t explain any more than you already had?

45. When the sniffer dog
marked the scent of corpse coming from the vehicle you hired a month after the disappearance, did you say you couldn’t explain any more than you already had?

46. When human blood was marked in the boot of the vehicle, did you say you couldn’t explain any more than you already had?

47. When confronted with the results of Maddie’s DNA, whose analysis was carried out in a British laboratory, collected from behind the sofa and the boot of the vehicle, did you say you couldn’t explain any more than you already had?

48. Did you have any responsibility or intervention in your daughter’s disappearance?

A question she did answer:
Q. Are you aware that in not answering the questions you are jeopardising the investigation, which seeks to discover what happened to your daughter?

A. 'Yes, if that’s what the investigation thinks.'

All hairdressers are in the employment of the government

Remember that quote(1) by Danny in Withnail and I?
I recently met a woman who was Cherie Blair's hairdresser for a while so got the low-down:
Cherie's hair is fine and very straight. She doesn't have a good hairline. It's hard to make her hair big and bouncy as she wants it. She is extremely pear-shaped and wears a corset underneath her clothes all the time. Her life is not her own, all her dressing decisions are made for her by aides. She talks about her kids alot. Tony is comfortable standing around in his underpants, taking phone calls, in front of strangers. They bitch about other world leaders and their wives in front of their staff.
Cherie promised the hairdresser a present but all she got was a signed photograph.
Hair is important in politics. Baldies don't win. Hillary Clinton's advice to graduating young women at Yale was:
“The most important thing I have to say today is that hair matters . . . Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.”
Legally Blonde 2 was not just a comedy, it was social commentary.

(1) The full quote by Danny: "I don't advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hairs are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos, and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight."

Saturday, 30 August 2008

The Joker

Is it possible to get a DVD of The Dark Knight with only the bits that the Joker is in? Missing out all the non-Joker bits? Cos frankly the rest of it is boring.
These are pretty funny...





Anyway, I know what I'm wearing this Halloween.

Margarita

Tequila cactus in Mexico

Last night I went to a Brixton cocktail bar... Mango Landin', a little tropical raft nestled on a street of council estate blocks.
My favourite cocktail is a Margarita, on the rocks, not frozen. I love the salt around the rim. Last summer in the States, I bought the special salt in a little plastic container that you dip your glass into, after wiping the rim with lime.
You have to use fresh lime, not lime cordial.
Those mixes they sell in the States are awful...luminous green and too sweet.

I've tried making my own but they aren't satisfactory yet. I'm aiming to achieve the same taste as the famous Margarita's at El Coyote Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. I lived there in the early 80's. Margarita's cost a dollar. Checking their website I saw that they now cost $6.50.
The Margarita at Mango Landin' cost £6.50p, double what it costs in the States. Although the barman did his best, it was merely ok, but not great, missing something. The barman there uses triple sec with white tequila and cointreau with gold tequila. (His Mojito's were much better.)
I'll have to continue my quest to find a decent Margarita in Britain.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Carla Bruni

France has finally found its own Lady Di...wouldn't it be poetic justice if Carla died in a tunnel in London? Perhaps the underpass from Park Lane to Knightsbridge would be appropriate? Maybe after a bit of shopping at Harrods and a couple of Kir Royales?
What an ambitious driven woman! Sun in the first degree of upwardly mobile Capricorn in the sixth house of work (but conjunct outspoken Mercury in Sag). Moon conjunct Pluto in Virgo. She will work it. She won't slack. Venus conjunct Neptune in Scorpio (a dreamy lover, people project their fantasies onto her) in the 5th house of lovers square Mars in Aquarius in the 8th. She can do kinky too. Cancer rising...appeals to the people. She can do the image, dress the part...just like Madonna, another steely Virgoan (purse lipped underneath her exhibitionist Leo Sun). 
Carla's chart full of tension, red lines, squares. She doesn't take it easy. An achiever. (People wish they had an 'easy' chart full of grand trines, but this is so often seen in the charts of lazy under-achieving people). 
Love the fact that she is richer than him. Check out Carla on Google images...her modelling work was sometimes a little...ahem...top shelf?
Thanks be to Nicholas Sarkozy for entertaining his people and the world. We are all enjoying it. Sooo much better than helmet haired Bernadette Chirac with her noble catholicism and her causes.


North

A smurf at Solfest

The dominoes

Wurzel Gummidge

Zoltan read my fortune and said "You will work very hard for very little money"

A little sojourn up north...I went to Solfest, a tiny Cumbrian festival near the sea. Beautiful scenery, heather and salt breezes. The festival wasn't up to much...
I was cooking, and I can report that salads don't sell too well. I should have been making deep fried pizza or Mars bars in batter...
There was less money around than for Secret Garden Party but people were just as creative with their costumes...perhaps more so. Surveying two people dressed up as dominoes, I wondered with 'Wurzel Gummidge' if they knew each other before the festival "If they didn't" he retorted "they are a match made in heaven". 
On my return I made a pilgrimage to Wet Sleddon near Penrith to see Uncle Monty's cottage from Withnail and I, then to Birkenhead, next to Liverpool, for a visit to the "priory"...a much needed rest at the flat of my friend Liverbird. Finally a stop in Manchester where I was given a tour by Kurt Cobain.
Passing Old Trafford football ground, the home of Manchester United, he explained that it was traditional to sit in the terrace which faced your house. This stems from the days when fans were local and walked to the ground. Kurt is a Stretford ender. He is also a founder member of F.C. United, the red rebels, a breakaway club formed in disgust when Americans bought Man U, who regularly have attendances of 2-3,000 supporters and are rising rapidly up the league.
He, like Liverbird, hates Victoria Beckham.(1) If it wasn't for her, he grumbled, Beckham would still be playing for Man U. Personally I like her. She's self-deprecating, honest and funny. She also behaved with dignity during the whole Rebecca Loos episode.
Kurt showed me downtown Manchester,  where we had amazingly cheap and tasty curries (not in Curry Mile, which like Londons' Brick Lane, is full of touristy rip-offs) and Moss side, scene of race riots in the 80's. I also saw quite a few men with the Oasis (most famous sons of Manchester) haircut. 
Manchester, according to Stuart Maconie who wrote 'Pies and Prejudice', is where Communism, Vegetarianism, and Feminism started. It's also, of course, the home of the rave scene. I was shown where the Hacienda used to be...how can they close places like this? Same goes for the closed then rebuilt Cavern club in Liverpool, what municipal stupidity!
My residing memory of Manchester is of everybody singing "Always look on the bright side of life" from The Life of Brian when they lost the bid to hold the 2000 Olympics.

(1) I wonder if Liverbird dislikes her because she is one of the few non-scouse WAGS (read this wikipedia link, it's very funny). She is in fact the WAG queen. I wanted to make a synchro-mystical pilgrimage to Cricket, the uber WAG boutique, in Liverpool but ran out of energy and time. I'm certain though that if one adds up the numerology of the letters in Coleen McCulloghs name, one can come up with some Babylonian New World Order conspiracy theory. 

Look at the prices...

This Manchester traffic warden was cool, she was about to give me a ticket and then relented saying "no problem". Can you imagine that in London?

Thursday, 28 August 2008

We've gone on holiday by mistake...

Beautiful countryside

On the drive up to Solfest, my daughter, for whom I bought the DVD Withnail and I this birthday, saw the name 'Penrith' leading off the motorway. "That's the cottage," she cried, "Uncle Monty's cottage, we've got to go!"
As she spent the entire festival rereading Harry Potter in the van, I decided to treat her, on our return journey, to a pilgrimage to Penrith. We arrived late about 5. We parked next to the Wet Sleddon reservoir. There was another car full of young lads, Lake District stoners. Eyeing their Camberwell carrot, I thought they will know where it is.
"It's only a 20 minute walk to the cottage" they said.
We set off. We didn't change into wellies, thinking it's not far.
It started to rain. As time went on, a black cloud descended from the hills. The footpath disappeared into a stream. Our feet were getting squelchy. We continued. We found mushrooms, ceps and chanterelles (the first time I have found them in Britain).

A cep mushroom

There were many sheep and some rams. My daughter was frightened of the rams.
We kept walking. After an hour, it was getting darker, even though it wasn't due to get dark for another 3 and a half hours.
We were decidedly lost. We hadn't even found the cottage. (1)
We saw some 'Withnail' related graffiti, dialogue from the film felt-tipped onto a post. We must be near, we thought. But the building we had headed towards, didn't seem to be the right place. It was empty, dark and rather frightening.
"Mum, I'm scared" said my normally stroppy teenager. "I think its haunted".
Worn out, we decided to attempt to find our way back, but this time via a proper path/road. But it seemed to be leading away from the reservoir, which we could still glimpse distantly.
Night was falling.
Rain was blowing in sideways. We were soaked.
We passed a farm. I'm terrified of dogs. Especially farm dogs. I try to make my daughter go in and ask directions. She refused.
Bulls block the road. We cower by the side for a while. Eventually they move off. We summon all our courage and continue. As we get nearer, we see that they are, in fact, cows.
My daughter wants to leave the path and cut across fields...we start and then I realise instinctively that this is a very bad idea. A little voice in my head says 'never leave the path'.
We are such townies. I get a signal on my phone. I call my rambler friend in Liverpool. "Call the coastguard" she says. "When night falls in the Lake district, it is pitch black and you will freeze." She adds "Plus they are gorgeous hunky men."
It's August, who would have imagined such weather? We've been out for 3 hours.
Feeling guilty, I reluctantly consider phoning 999. Then I hear a sound on the road. It's a tractor. I run towards the road. "Help! Help!"
The farmer stops and opens the door, smiling.
After explanations and apologies he offers a lift to our van. He was the nightwatchman on the film.
"You met Richard E. Grant!" gasps my daughter.
We've never been in a tractor before, it's such fun.
He gives us his phone number and says give us a call if you are ever up here again and I'll show you the cottage.
We sit in the van, turn the heating up full and drive down the M6 towards Liverpool, towards my friend, cups of tea, sitting on the sofa, dry feet and a rare evening of TV....Skyplus' 50 Celebrity Meltdowns.
Phew.
Hiding from the bulls

(1) It turned out that we had found the cottage, it was the slightly scary haunted place.
Update January 2009. The cottage is for sale, guide price £145,000 (link to story).

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The house in the woods

Visiting my friends near Uzès, one of the most beautiful towns in France, where sadly I did not have time to visit le musée du bonbon. L, a Titian beauty and great astrologer and her husband, James Mason lookalike, P, an antique dealer, are fascinating company. L talked of their time in Brazil last year with John of God, a healer. She underwent two psychic 'operations' in which she felt hands grasping inside her, pulling things out. Afterwards she was exhausted for several days and had a visible scar. 
We also discussed the astrology of movements in pop music: punk was triggered by Uranus in Scorpio; outrage, rebellion and nihilism. The figurehead of punk, John Rotten/Lydon is an Aquarian.
Techno surprisingly coincided with the Uranus/Neptune conjunction in Capricorn. While I can understand that Neptune would be a strong factor; the drugs, the trance music, the throwback to 60's psychedelia...but why Capricorn, that status ridden, establishment-based, ambitious sign? But the explanation lies in the fact that alot of money was made during the techno period...it was run by bread head hippies. Conservative peers' son, James Palumbo, who ran the Ministry of Sound, one of the most successful clubs and record labels of the period, would seem aptly to represent this combination.
L has written an astrological analysis on members of the 27 club, those pop stars that die at the age of 27; Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain. They didn't want to grow up astrologically, that is, to go through their first Saturn return at 28/29. 


Kir


My favourite apero is Kir...that is white wine with crème de cassis (blackcurrant). My sister and I invented the Kiro which is rosé with crème de cassis. You also have Kir Royale, champagne with crème de cassis.
There are varieties with crème de mure (blackberry), crème de peche etc
It's worth investing in a decent crème de cassis from Dijon, which you can also dollop onto ice-cream. 

Onions in curry

Peanut seller on Indian bus

My hosts near Uzes have both travelled extensively in India and have adoptive Indian families. This affords the rare privilege of watching the Indian housewife cook...The secret to a decent curry is not only in grinding your own spices...a couple of cloves, cardamon pods, coriander seeds, turmeric, garlic, ginger, bay leaves, cumin,  but also in grinding the onions. Don't slice or chop...grind. This way you get that fantastic brown sauce. I also pop the mustard seeds in the oil prior to everything else. I like to add yoghurt or coconut milk or creamed coconut. Sometimes I put in peanut butter. I always add fresh coriander at the end.
I once knew a guy that put Mars bars in his curries.
I also ate a proper pesto alla genovese at their lovely house in the woods. Along with the classic pesto sauce; basil leaves, pine nuts, Parmesan you add small boiled potatoes and slice green beans to the top of your spaghetti. It really makes a complete meal.

La Sainte-Baume



La source


First stop after Saint Tropez was La Sainte-Baume. I have been before to St. Maximim, where I happened to arrive on the one day a year when the gold plated skull of Mary Magdalene is displayed at the cathedral. I was told that the grotto where she spent the last 30 years of her life was "up the road...nearby". On this visit I decided to find the grotto. French paysan casualness of directions never fails to amaze me. The grotto was a 45 minute drive through beautiful windy pine forests towards the coast. At La Sainte-Baume there is a reasonably priced hotel run by Dominican monks. I was directed upwards towards the grotto...a 45 minute walk. We passed, yes I was accompanied by a groaning teenager, a 'source' of holy water, no doubt where the Magdalene herself drank during her period of isolation there. Crosses and notices stating that it was a place of silence dotted the path. At the top, a chapel carved out of the white rocky mountain side, we arrived in time for mass. Two priests in white and a cardinal in red stood at the door of the church as the bells tolled, echoing over the landscape far below. It reminded me of Tibetan hillside monasteries. 
Inside, three Indian nuns clad in cream and white knelt at the pews. This shrine was an important place of pilgrimage until the middle ages. Every French king visited, some on their way to the crusades. There are plaques on the wall thanking Mary Magdalene and some declare that they have been healed at this site. During the French revolution, the shrine was partially destroyed and it fell into disuse. It was revived about a century ago.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Anarchy in the Republique Francaise

For the years 2004-6, you will see pre-dated posts in the blog archive. During that time I was heavily involved in playing samba and its role in political activism. 
I attended the People's Global Action (PGA) conference in Belgrade in 2004 and the Anti-G8 camps in Evian and Scotland. My accounts, written at that time, were originally posted to samba group email lists. I also visited and wrote about two French communes; La Valette, a squatted former mining village near to Alés and Longo Mai, one of the original 60's communes, in Provence.
I wrote about my time with French activists when helping to prepare the PGA conference which was held in France in 2006. French activists are rather different from the Anglo-Saxon breed. They love to talk, to worry, to intellectualise. They have also actually read their Marx etc. Anglophone activists tend to be more pragmatic, more focused on direct action, less theoretical, less serious.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Ma vie en rosé



I spent the year 2005-6 living in Provence. I think, somewhere in the back of their minds, everyone has a dream of living in the South of France...
I came here because I was determined not to put my 11 year old into the local 'sink comprehensive'(1). I was even prepared to move country. Moving to Grimaud, I enrolled her in the nearest French comprehensive in St.Maxime. In France everybody puts their kids into the local school. Private school costs peanuts, around a £100 a month, and is chosen for religious reasons, as they do not teach any religion in French State schools (separation between church and state very important here). Unlike Britain, particularly London, where the sole topic of conversation between parents of 8 to 11 year olds centres on what secondary school you are trying to get your kid into, France has a comprehensive system that works. This means: lots of lovely well brought up children; good teachers; good facilities; school bus.
School lunches however, were a bit of a problem. I had it in my head that all the kids would sit down to tiny pîchets of red wine with lunch, hors d'oeuvres, plats principals, cheese course, dessert and mini expresso coffees. With the exception of the wine and the expresso, my fantasy was fairly accurate: how many English schools serve goats cheese and crackers with lunch?
Trouble is my teenager is a vegetarian, always has been. She was coming home starving. They mix everything with meat, she complained.
So I stomped up the school and met the hefty cook. She came into the school office wiping her hands on her apron, ready to do battle. Sweetly I asked if she could put aside some of the pasta or the rice but without meat so that my teenager gets something to eat.
"We don't do all that religious stuff here" she declared "just like we don't allow veils or crucifixes".
In France, vegetarianism is a kooky religion.
The mothers outside the school gate, being near to Saint Tropez, looked like film stars. High heels, coiffed hair, full make-up (brown lip-liner a particular fave), colour co-ordinated outfits were par for the course. So unlike our own dear England where most of us mums rock up bleary eyed, in trackie bottoms and hair (Croydon facelift style) in a scrunchie.
Kids don't wear school uniform in France. The girls wore the latest fashions, jewellery, make-up, heels, tiny skirts over long brown legs. Plus there were school yard fashions. My teenager soon learnt that to wear your backpack high up your back was the ultimate nerdy thing to do. You had to wear the back pack with the straps so long it is hanging down by the backs of your knees. Thereby removing any advantage one might gain from a backpack. This is important in France because all the kids have to carry all their textbooks and exercise books into school every day. There are no lockers. The bags weigh a ton. As a result, French school kids have terrible back problems.
It was surreal waiting outside the school leaning next against a palm tree. And hard for the kids too, trying to concentrate on academia while outside there is beautiful weather, a beach, tennis courts, horse riding etc etc.
My teenager was very brave, starting secondary 'big' school in a foreign country. The first term she was terrified: she had to get used to kissing everyone she met on both cheeks which made getting on the school bus quite a lengthy process. By the second term she'd gained enough confidence to start being naughty at school.
She settled in just fine. It was me that had the problems. Being a single mum in a foreign country in the countryside was no fun. I was bloody lonely. The French were not friendly even though I spoke French. France is not a 'mates' culture. They hang out with their family. The ex-pats were not in general the sort of people that I would mix with in London. Many of them were a bit 'Del-boy', absconding fathers or worse, actual criminals on the run. There were hardly any women (2).
It's an ex-pat cliché but they did all drink loads. After a couple of months my kidneys hurt from drinking so much rosé. I grew to like a lethal short called a Slippery Nipple: Sambucca, Baileys, with a Grenadine nipple on top.
I was obliged to spend time with the bored British mums, none of whom were single (3). A typical day would be taking kid to school then meeting at the bar opposite Leclerc. You'd do your shopping and then order a few rosés or kirs. Cocktail hour started at 11. All they ever talked about was plastic surgery, diets and how much their husbands annoyed them. Next thing you knew it was tea time so you'd drive home gingerly, quickly tidy up the house so it looked like you'd done something productive, brush your teeth and make dinner.
Some days though I was so depressed and lonely I didn't even bother to go to the shopping centre (which was basically the only place open in winter...off-season is deathly dull). I just switched on the TV which had Sky. I would watch all the medical and legal dramas and then start on the True Movies channel. I knew I'd watched too many True Movies when they started to repeat the same ones a few months later. I could have pretty much written the script for one myself. A typical storyline would have a psychologically disturbed mother/brave divorcee, who met with Prince Charming/axe murderer who would then steal her child and she would spend the rest of the movie overcoming the illness/beating the odds in some way. It appeals to housewives' worst fears.
In the evenings, on non-school nights, aching with isolation (for there was no work off-season), I'd drag myself to the only place open, an English pub. It was clear that I didn't fit in. One Liverpudlian said to me, you'd get on with M, he's your type, he's got a bookshelf, like, full of books.
I met with this guy M. I saw the famous 'bookshelf' which was singular and measured approximately 15 inches in length. M, however, informed me that he didn't believe in fiction and would only allow reference books such as dictionaries on this famous bookshelf.
Sometimes you'd meet someone, get on quite well and then further along in the conversation discover that they'd killed someone back in England and could never return. Nobody was who they seemed.
One of the British mums, whose son was grown up, kept talking about her boyfriend. I saw a picture of this boyfriend and he was very good looking and much younger than her. Over the months she continued to talk about him. I asked why he never visited. She said he was working on a building project in England. One day though, to prove his love for her to me, she showed me a long hand written letter from him. Suddenly the penny dropped. I asked a mutual friend if he were in prison.
How did you guess? she asked.
Well, nobody writes hand written letters anymore, especially not 'successful' business men. I said. The lack of visits now made sense(4).

1. So called because it is a 'sink' comprehensive school, the standard State education. Other parents also contort themselves to avoid sending their kids to a bad local school. They buy studio flats in the catchment area of a good State school if they have the money, sometimes pretending that they have split up. It is a mark of shame if you have only gotten your kid into a bad school. Other parents pretend to be religious. It's amazing how many children suddenly start attending church at the age of 10. This is to get into a church school. I knew one Jewish mum who got a job at a Church of England school in order to gain entry for her daughter. This whole subject is worth a post in itself.
2. This was because there is no work for women off-season, that is, mid-October to beginning of May. There is only cleaning. The men however have plenty of well paid work... building. For mothers it is particularly difficult because French summer school holidays last 10 weeks from the end of June till September, so effectively you have to work, not see your children and pay for child care in order to work the season. Hence dearth of women in winter. You'd think that'd be good for pulling purposes but let's face it, French prime minister Edith Cresson was right, British men don't really like women, and have a marked preference for football and beer.
3. Many of them came from up North so they were quite old-fashioned. Their husbands didn't like their friends coming over in the evening. If I was round their house, I had to vacate the premises before hubbie got home for tea which of course had to be on the table as soon as he got in or they'd get in trouble. A culture shock for an independant London mum.
4. A similar incident: I was talking to a very glamourous lady at a baby shower. She bemoaned her life since her recent divorce. I was feeling sympathetic until another woman told me that the reason this lady was divorced was because she'd had an affair with the pool boy and decided to get rid of her now inconvenient husband by shopping him to the police for hawking fake Louis Vuitton handbags. He was now in the local jail. All very Desperate Housewives.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

olives

I am thrilled. I have succeeded in curing olives on my first attempt. I picked them from two bushes in my parents house in Provence last October. I opened them today and they are delicious.
This is quite a tricky process and prone to failure.
I rinsed them for 5 days on the trot then put them in a sealed pot with olive oil, garlic, slices of lemon, vinegar, bay leaves and various herbs. They are tiny, speckled and black and green.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

On the hoof...

Baked beans and tomato soup cans on the engine of my car.
Place cans in secure area near engine.
Drive some place at least half an hour away.
Open bonnet and feel if cans are hot enough.
If they are, open them and eat.

I don't eat meat but one of the kitchen crew at the Ooh la la café has cooked strips of bacon on a light bulb. 

And of course cheese fondue is cooked on a tea light. Love cheese fondu.
Grate emmental cheese and gouda cheese.
Rub a clove of garlic around the pan.
Add half a bottle of white wine. Drink the rest.
Add some kirsch...cherry liqueur.
Put it all into a small pan and heat over tea lights.
Cut some bread into squares.
Dip bread squares on long forks into melted cheese fondu.
Drink more white wine (dryish to counteract the oil of the cheese. Or my fave white wine...Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace). 
Tradition has it that if you lose a bread square in the fondu, you have to buy a bottle of white wine.
Serve with green salad, with walnuts and fromage bleu if you wish. 
Sometimes I go a bit raclette-ish with it and add salt encrusted small potatoes, dishes of small gherkins and silverskin onions. Meat eaters add salami n stuff. 

Great recipe for fish if you don't have a bbq or a pan.
Catch fish.
Gut fish.
Wrap fish in wet newspaper.
Put it on a fire.
When newspaper is dry, it is cooked.

I've done this one and it works just great.

Provence

The Aoutiens (people who go on holiday for the month of August) are out, the Jullietistes (ditto month of July) have gone home...
The annual French road carnage has started...driving on the autoroutes here is like participating in a particularly brutal video game...they have one of the highest accident fatality rates in Europe.
May pop by to Saint Maximim -la Sainte-Baume for my Magdalene fix.
Coming soon...my photo reportage on Tartes Tropeziennes...that breed of women of a certain age who all look like Brigitte Bardot...now.

Update: almost got arrested yesterday while being held hostage in back room of St Tropez club by Idi Amin lookalike. Full story in a week...don't want to scoop the papers...

Sun dried tomatoes

Does anybody else think that these are mostly rather vile?
Acid chewy things. They remind me of that scene in Michael Herr's brilliant book about the Vietnam war 'Despatches' which Apocalypse Now was based on... a newbie soldier was handed a bag which looked like it was full of apricots...on dipping in he discovered it was full of hacked off Vietcong ears...
Back to tomatoes...now there are such a thing as Sun blushed tomatoes which are much nicer. 
What is the difference? The answer is here...

Salad bar

For this festival I mostly filled the chiller cabinet with salads which consisted of my usual aforementioned repertoire plus:
3 bean salad (yuk, but was forced to, so put in lots of chopped parsley and garlic)
Beetroot salad (yuk again, hate beetroot, people said it was great, have no idea, didn't even taste it)
sweetcorn and tomato salad (so easy and quick). Make a really nice dijon mustard dressing with it.
Oil (I'm assuming anyone with half a brain will use good oil such a olive or walnut or hazlenut or a good quality cold pressed seed or vegetable oil. Big scoop of dijon smooth mustard. Teensy bit of lemon or vinegar. Salt. Bit of garlic. Keep stirring until it looks like mayonnaise.
Dolmades... now usually I make them from scratch but had no time.
If you want to be really swotty you can even pick the leaves from a vine tree, blanche them and then use to wrap around a rice/herb, vinaigretty mixture. Add whatever inspires you...pine nuts, red peppers... or use bulgar wheat...
Usually this particular café makes veggie burgers from sosmix which has got to be one of the vilest food stuffs known to mankind. In fact I'd rather eat meat. 
I prefer the Pogos recipe veggie burgers:
sunflower seeds
pumpkin seeds
smoked tofu and maybe a bit of normal tofu
a bit of tamari sauce
garlic
breadcrumbs
salt/pepper
(skip the thyme, far too much of it in prepared vegetarian food)
shape into patties... fry

Add cheese if you are not vegan. (vegan cheese is ridiculous)

I was also instructed to make home made falafel which I have never made before. These were my instructions:
Soak then grind up chickpeas.
add other stuff which I can't remember.
Sometimes add broadbeans.

People liked them, but they made me fart. Food that gives you stomach cramps is not good.

I must have done something wrong. Need to work on that one. Any suggestions welcome.
There are political and cultural issues surrounding Falafel. The Israeli's have claimed them as their national food. But it is a traditional Arab food dating back to Babylonian times. The Arabs are not happy.

Persillade

Cooking in bulk for festivals, you need a lot of garlic.
Peel at least 20 bulbs...smash the top with the bottom of a mug and the cloves will fan out and some of the papery skin will come off. 
Sling it in the robochef or similar. 
Divide in half. Put half into a glass jar and cover with olive oil.
Put a large bunch of parsley into what is left in the robochef. Whizz it about. You now have persillade. Again put it into a glass jar and cover with olive oil.
Use at will. In everything. Or spread on bread and bake to make garlic bread. 
This is a great way of preserving garlic/herb mixtures.
I also made pesto. Whizz up basil leaves, pinch of salt, pine nuts, olive oil, some of the garlic paste, parmesan or pecorino cheese (don't add salt if it's pecorino).  Variations include walnuts, cashew nuts...anchovies...