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.
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.