Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May, With Mammaries

Last year, I made a deal about the Comédie du Livre, France's second-largst book fair, which just happens to occur on my doorstep, because the campaign to save the Anglophone Library was a presence due to the fact that the partner country was, well, not the U.S. because they couldn't find enough American writers who had books in translation and wanted to attend, so it turned into North America, which included an Ethiopian, a Vietnamese, and a Quebecois. This year, the partner nation was Germany. Imagine my excitement.

And, it turned out, that of the crowd. There were even fewer readers lined up for autographs than last year, even though there seemed to be far more people in attendance, and the weather was sunny and on this delicious cusp of warm and hot. It appears that the reason Germany was picked was because of this being the 50th anniversary of Montpellier choosing Heidelberg as a twin city, much as last year was the 50th anniversary for Louisville. So far, though, we haven't been treated to an exhibition of German photography at the Pavillon Populaire, which is a shame, because there's some real good stuff to choose from, both contemporary and historic. (Willi Römer! Just go google him). Of course, they'd probably pick all the wrong stuff.

As always, the biggest lines, some including people toting luggage filled with books, were at the BD booths. I have yet to penetrate the culture of the bandes dessinées as much as I'd like to. The term covers a wide swath of territory. "Comic book" is insufficient, although comic books like Lucky Luke,  Tintin, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are included in the term. "Graphic novel" has come to indicate pretentiousness in the U.S., thanks to grim practitioners like Chris Ware, and another recent development (at least in the West), manga, is somewhat warily admitted to the shelter of the BD tent here. I myself am a huge fan of a guy named Jean-Claude Denis, who has a sizeable output for someone with almost no audience, and I hope someday to be able to translate and publish some of his stuff, especially the antics of his antihero Luc Leroi.

Sharing some of the space with the book fair was an encampment in the park just off the Esplanade of scruffy-looking people with cardboard signs urging revolution immediately, "true democracy," and reminding us that "people have died." As is often the case here, the means towards the revolution seemed to be lurking in a can of 9.8% alcohol beer, and most of the dialogue was internal. One bunch of very clean-cut revolutionaries set up a stand with a French-English sign, and I suspect they were LaRouchies, since they seem to be everywhere, ranting incoherently. Anyway, the scruffies seem to have been ousted from the park and are now in residence in the Comédie, ranting through bullhorns as U write this and climbing the fountain of the Three Graces.

Nobody seems overly concerned, although a little old lady did mutter something to me as she passed by with her shopping. The ranters rant for a while, the people on the ground there apply crayons to that cardboard (they have a lot of cardboard), signs urging revolution are stuck onto the side of the fountain, where the wind blows them over, and, at one point, one of the more inebriated revolutionists decided one of the Graces needed some cosmetics and climbed up to redress the lack.

The police seem notably unimpressed, although they do drive through from time to time.

Our pals the street artists are also urging their own sorts of revolution, and I must say I like the way it's expressed, even that I sympathize.

There are several larger-scale examples of this around, but I'm lazy and this is the nearest to my house. Whether it has anything to do with the fact that Gay and Lesbian Pride Days happen this Saturday I can't say, but at least loud disco out on the Comédie is preferable to drunks with bullhorns.

Looks like some travel may be coming up, so the subjects, if not the quality, of the photos may well improve in subsequent posts.

Monday, May 23, 2011

More Merry Maytime Miettes

Sorry, I promised a quick report on the wild asparagus, but what with one thing and another, I forgot to come back and give the report.

First, I looked at it and figured it wasn't a meal by itself. It did, however, need to be steamed, because it may have been thin, but it was still pretty fibrous. So I went up the hill to the covered market and bought some side-dishes, then laid them out on a plate, and boiled the steaming water.

(Yeah, I hate the yellow cast these energy-saving bulbs imbue everything with in these shots too, but when I went to Photoshop to try to fix it I wound up with something that looked like "Meal On Acid." I really must conquer that program some day).

So what we have here is a couple of slices of Iberian ham, a pâté en croûte, a hunk of baguette from the corner, and M. Bou's finest Camembert (his only Camembert, in fact). Also a bottle of Domaine de la Prose's low-priced stuff -- hardly low-priced, but it's a St.-Georges-d'Orques, probably the best local address for wine. (They used to brag that Thomas Jefferson used to buy wine from them, but suddenly stopped, probably because it's demonstrably not true).

When the water boiled, I stuck the asparagus in the steamer basket and steamed it for 45 seconds on the nose, then laid it out on a small plate, doused it with a bit of olive oil and a little salt, and it was dinner-time.

The final verdict: it was too much for a single serving. It should have been steamed longer -- a minute minimum. The taste was very delicate, somewhat bitter like asparagus, but with a sweet edge. I wonder if another 15 seconds' steaming would have brought out the flavor more, or maybe a tad more salt. The ham, as I suspected, made a good foil for it, and the rest was kind of superfluous except for filling me up. The wine was way too big for the asparagus, but it went nicely with the pâté and cheese.

I also suspect this stuff has a diuretic effect, because I was up and down all night. Again, a half-dose might not have had that effect. I noticed a couple of days later that the same greengrocer in the Halles had more bundles of this stuff, but, at €4.95 apiece, I'm not likely to buy more until I have a place big enough to have dinner-guests in. Which, I hope, will happen soon.

And, in the uncovered market this weekend, more cherries -- still not there -- asparagus, amazing strawberries, and the first melons, which sure smell good, but are waaaay too expensive. I can wait.

* * *

It must be hard being a street artist here. Someone went around with a stencil and hit a couple of likely walls, spraying on a very realistic-looking phone and the highly ambiguous slogan (in English) TALK TO GOOD. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Is it a misspelling for "talk to God," making the point that there is no God, and this isn't a telephone? That's as close as I can come. But I walked past one of these twice and forgot to grab it, and when I went back the third time, it was so well painted over that I couldn't even see where the phone had been.

Likewise a great paper piece on the side of the Panacée, the ancient seat of the University's medical school, which is being turned into some sort of arts space. There, a winsome little girl in 19th century clothing had her hands on a detonator, from which a long string of paper led up the wall to a sconce in which there was a bundle of what was labelled TNT. All rendered in paper, all gone when I went out with my camera. Conclusion: this isn't Berlin, and it may just be a place without the ability to discern between art and gang tags. I'll try to be quicker on the uptake.

It's also a place with a curious command of English, as that caption proves. I've been meaning to note another one here, a boutique which advertises itself with the slogan "Be Fashion Think Seven's." I don't know about you, but that invitation seems quite resistable.

* * *

Yet to come, the photo show, which I see is not only at the Pavillon Poplaire, but also at Ste. Anne's church, and, from what I can tell, shows the latest acquisition of the municipal photography collection. I'm happy to live in a city that collects art, but, because one of the acquisitions is a huge number of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's awful Lucybelle Crater series, about which I complained at some length here last year, I've been slow to get off my duff and go get disappointed. Also in the new acquisitions are some shots of East Berlin by a Japanese photographer, whose samples in another recent show were little better than tourist snapshots. Don't worry: I'll go. And I have a good excuse, in that I've been working on a book proposal. I still am, but I do promise to go see this show.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

At Last!

Well, now, this is a pleasant surprise. A young woman from Yale, writing about the concept of terroir in France, came to town after working for a couple of weeks on an organic farm up in the Cévennes to see how what she'd seen translated to the big city, so I gave her the walking tour, with an emphasis on food. In the Halles Castellanes, the covered market at the top of the hill, we were looking at stuff, and suddenly I saw this:

My second exotic vegetable of the year, and one I've been trying to find for five or six years now. From everything I can gather, it's way out of season, but there it was: wild asparagus.

I picked up the bundle, paid the nice lady, and took it home, where I'll steam it tomorrow and douse it with the best olive oil I can find and maybe just a tad of salt.

There it is, up close. The first time I saw this, I thought it was wheat. There will be something simple to accompany it, and a darn good wine. Stay tuned: miettes will follow.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Merry Miettes of May

This post should have a photo. But it doesn't.

* * *

Say It With Flowers: Since this was my third May Day in Montpellier, I was prepared for the profusion of people set up all over town selling nosegays of lilies of the valley. This is a tradition here, and notable in that the vendors are, for the most part, not professionals, just people who raise a lot of the flowers for the occasion and bring them into town. It's charming, seeing most of Montpellier walking around clutching bunches of little white flowers.

What I wasn't prepared for, though, was the red roses on the 10th, even though I did something I never do and accepted a copy of one of the free newspapers being handed out at lunchtime here. I didn't remember that happening last year, and it turned out that it hadn't. The roses, the paper told me, were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the election of a Socialist government in France, since François Mitterand was elected President on that day in 1981. There were fewer red flowers than white ones the week before, but in a city as red as this one is, it probably took on a lot of significance.

But there really wasn't a photo-op attached.

* * *

Friday the 13th saw me walk out the other direction from the apartment into a bizarre scene: the fountain of the Three Graces was shrouded with a black cloth, and, in a fenced-off area, two circles of people wearing black shirts and with their mouths bound shut with strips of cloth stood facing outwards. Performance art? Sure looked like it, but then I heard the speech being given, noticed the huge placard on the ground, and realized that it was the Club de la Presse, a mysterious organization I keep meaning to look into to see if I'm eligible (probably not, not being French), staging a demonstration on behalf of two journalists from France 3 TV, Stephane Teponier and Hervé Ghesquière, who disappeared with three of their crew in Afghanistan on December 29, 2009 and haven't been seen since. It was all very dramatic, all very enigmatic (there was a plexiglas rostrum set up on the steps of the Opera House, but, although the speeches were coming in loud and clear, nobody was standing at it), and just a bit pathetic to hear some unseen Frenchwoman declaiming "President Karzai, we demand that you use the power of your office to find and free these two journalists and their companions." There you've done it, Hamid: you've pissed off the Club de la Presse de Languedoc-Roussillon!

I should have gone back to the house, grabbed my camera, and taken a picture, but I'd only nipped out to get some bread to make a sandwich, and I've been working like crazy on this book proposal, so once I got back to the house, I went straight to the kitchen, made the sandwich, grabbed a napkin in case it leaked, sat back down at the computer and got back to work.

So that's why there's no picture of that.

* * *

Then, it occurred to me, I saw a banner announcing the annual Rencontres Folkloriques on Saturday. I don't know much about the back-stories of the various dances that get done, but associations representing various traditions and occupations come into town in costumes and do dances while oboe bands wail away, so I promised myself I'd go get that. There were lots of tables set up all over the place, I noticed. One was urging you to use the services of your local notary. Another was denouncing homophobia and giving away condoms. Then I saw that a space had been blocked out by fences and a set of bleachers raised. Behind the bleachers were even more tables, mostly denouncing Israel and flying Palestinian flags. Well, I may not know much about the folkloristic traditions around here, but I do know that gay Palestinian notaries play a very small role in them, so I figured nothing was happening yet. I live so close to the Comédie, though, that I was sure to hear when something happened, because "quiet" and "folklorisitic" are opposed concepts. But it was raining on and off and there wasn't a single costume or oboe to be seen, and nothing to be heard as the day wore on.

So that's why there's no photo of that.

* * *

But I did make it to the market on Tuesday, and for the first time this year, I picked up some cherries from some guy who'd driven them in from his nearby farm. I didn't get much else of interest, just a bag of oregano and some olive oil and some asparagus and a tiny box of strawberries, so I didn't take a picture. Anyway, the cherries disappeared pretty quickly, even though they weren't all that flavorful. I suspect the huge black things that explode in your mouth are a different variety and still ripening out there on the farm.

But that's why there's no photo of that, either.

Sorry. I'll try to do better next time.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rare Bird

As long as I'm whining about stuff I can't get here, I should remember that green onions are called "spring onions" in England and just maybe the reason I can't find them all the time around here is because the French are a lot more scrupulous about stuff being in season than, say, the Germans are. Also, they don't use green onions as much, I guess.

But there is one thing I really and truly can't get here which I wish I could, and it's got nothing whatever to do with seasonality. I found some in Spain in January and brought back as much as I could. When a friend told me last night that he was going to be in Barcelona at the end of the month and might be able to sneak across here for a dinner or two, the first thing that came to mind is that this stuff was running out:

Right. Chicken broth. Bought in aseptic boxes which are just big enough to provide enough broth for two Chinese meals, or two meals with a broth-based sauce like I make for pork chops sometimes. About a cup, I think: 250 ml.

I've mentioned this to other people here and their response has been "Good lord, can't you cook? Just get a chicken, roast it, and make broth out of the carcass!" I assume these people are retired diamond merchants and drug dealers, since chicken is more expensive here than anywhere I've ever lived. Better, too, but you have to be prepared to shell out €14 for a whole chicken. (And that's another thing: you can get skinless, boneless breasts, or leg-thigh joints, but you can't buy a cut-up chicken in the supermarket). Things are a bit, um, austere around here at the moment, but even if they weren't, one chicken carcass doesn't make a whole lot of broth. And I'm a single guy who doesn't entertain. (This apartment is so small there's no room for two people to dine, let alone more, believe it or not). There'd be plenty of leftover chicken. No, it's just easier to buy chicken broth. You can do it in Germany, for heaven's sakes (although it's in a condensed form called Fond, with seasoning added), and in America Swanson's figured out that people wanted it without a lot of salt and with no MSG, and now they're making twice as much money as ever.

And in Spain, this company Caldo Aneto has acres of supermarket space for its products. With my nonexistent Spanish it took me about ten minutes to figure out that the product you see above is the one I wanted. I have since used it for superb Chinese meals and the occasional gravy. I know some of the Brits around here make day-trips to the Spanish border to hit the supermarkets there for stuff they can't get in France and now I'm beginning to see why.

So if you're going to be in Spain, say Barcelona or Girona, you should consider coming to Montpellier for a day or two, because we're real close. That's what my friend might be doing at the end of the month. And yes, you can ask me what I want from Spain, and I'll tell you a beautiful Spanish woman with a hair-trigger temper, some of those wacky Valencian plates, a nice Iberian ham, some of that incredible chorizo sausage, and...a buncha chicken broth. Hell, I'll settle for the broth. This time.
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