Saturday, December 10, 2011


I'm glad it's cooling off. Not that Im looking forward to the slightly elevated electric bills turning on the heat will bring (and it's not turned up very high: the African folks downstairs heat their apartment enough so that the rising heat has taken care of me for a while), but if my windows were open, as they are most of the year around, I'd be getting bombarded with Christmas music. That's right, the Hivernales are here, the modest Christmas fair the city moved into the little fake log cabins on the Comédie right after the even more modest wine fair pulled out of them, and now we've got to listen to horrid, mostly American, Christmas music from morning til night. On the up-side, they gave up on the hideous metal tree they've had in past years, and gotten a real one.

This shares space with our local Occupy folks, who started out living in the bandstand on the Esplanade, then moved to the lawn of the park there, and who now camp out just to the right of this picture. They're not properly Occupy protesters, though, but rather Indigné[e]s, according to their sign, thus allying themselves with the Spanish protestors in Madrid and Barcelona who've been at it even longer than the US folks, although I guess that doesn't make the papers in the States. The remaining protestors look kind of iffy, though: what, for instance, is the gigantic teddy-bear supposed to mean?

At any rate, keep walking to the right from this picture, and soon you're in the little village of horrors.

This collection changes from year to year, but not much: there are always the regulars selling stuff that no rational person would want. I can't speak to the jewelry, but it doesn't seem very well-designed. There's wine for sale, but mostly mulled, which is a great way to get rid of sub-standard stuff from your winery. There are ceramics so gaudy they'd radiate ugly through a cupboard door, bric-a-brac and tchotchkes (there must be an equivalent French word) galore, tiny jars of preserves, a booth which takes pictures and -- there's no other word for it -- warhols them into large wall-hangings which mimic Andy's iconic Marilyns and Liz Taylors (except it's your kids), and much, much more. There's food, of course: a stand selling aligot (mashed potatoes mixed with cheese) on which you can get a grilled sausage or an andouilette (a chitterling sausage that smells like a urinal which hasn't been  cleaned in a decade, possibly the only outright disgusting food I've found in France), a "Christmas in the Orient" booth selling falafel and North African pastries, and, of course, the local oysters.

I wish these were better, but they taste mostly of salt and have little of the delicacy good oysters have. On the other hand, the folks manning this booth are from Sète, so they also have tielles (little pies filled with chopped cuttlefish in a spicy tomato sauce) and mussel turnovers.

And, of course, there's sugar aplenty, from hand-made artisinal nougat to the utterly disgusting jelly-like stuff that Haribo sells, displayed by the ton, and sold by weight.

Note, between Spongebob and the doll, the panties made entirely of candy, with which a dedicated cunnilinguist can stage a race between orgasm and tooth decay. Only €15.

My favorite of these booths, though, is one of the ones selling absolutely useless items.

The French have a thing for Zen, which they don't seem to understand, using the word to mean anything odd or relaxing or otherwise indescribable. I once checked into an Ibis Hotel somewhere in France where they were touting their service zen. I wasn't able to make out, from the description, what it was, but from what I know of Buddhism, perhaps staying in a place with real Zen service wouldn't be an unmitigated pleasure.

The Hivernales also attract a fringe, people who don't rent one of the little booths, but sell cheap clothing, shoes, and handbags. It's also attracted the bonbon guys, who have carts on which kittens, pygmy goats, and even a black pygmy pig who wags his tail like a puppy when approached with an apple, stand. The deal is, your kid sees these and drags you over so they can pet the animals and the hustlers then try to talk you into buying a box of hard candy from them. I've been warned not to engage with these people, but I don't eat candy anyway, so it's not likely. My guess, however, is that the animals' lives aren't much better than those of beggars' dogs. The weirdest fringe person I've seen was a guy being moved on by the cops yesterday who had long balloons of the sort you make animals from, but was making some rather deranged abstracts, and a number of crosses. I doubt that the wild look in his eye and his unwashed hair were making sales any easier.

And as hokey as this all is, I have to admit it pays off at night.

The "icicles" on the front of the Opéra Comédie "drip," which is kind of corny, but it's all very festive and cheery, and no doubt the people on the shopping streets are opening up their wallets in fine fashion. It doesn't hurt that Montpellier is a place that everyone in the region has to come at some point or another to do administrative business -- renew a driver's license, deal with taxes -- so it doesn't have to depend on its full-time residents to support some of the more luxurious (Cartier, Hermès) outlets.

The broke-but-not-poor, on the other hand, go about life as usual, hitting the markets to get newly-seasonal stuff. I haven't posted a post-market photo in some time, but it's just not that glamorous in the winter. Still, there's good eating to be had:

In the back is a bag of really fine spinach, which they practically give away at this time of year, and in the front is this "mélange japonaise" salad mix, bitter and crunchy. Three type of pears are in the background, and they'll be with us a while longer, and there are some small broccoli heads which proved very nice. Not shown is a piece of pumpkin I bought and forgot about -- I honestly must learn some way of cooking this stuff, because I hate throwing food away -- nor the nice butternut squash I swear I'm going to figure out something to do with, which I picked up today. Also not shown are things which intrigue me which I haven't gotten around to buying yet: one stall at the market has purple and round carrots, which I've got to try, and at some point I'm going to buy some root vegetables to roast, maybe in some duck fat I indulged in recently. (I can't find lard any more, so I'm going to try substituting duck fat in biscuits tomorrow morning. Wonder how that'll work..?)

Yeah, it's December, and it gets worse in the food department. By February I'll be counting the days til I can get to Austin and inhale some Mexican food, because the local scene will have gotten just a bit bleak by then. But at least at the end of this month, they'll pack up the Hivernales and turn that damn Christmas music off.

And, as with all Decembers, it's a hard month for those of us who are in the writing biz: no new work, difficulty getting paid by those who have hired us, and nothing shaking until sometime early next year. Thanks to all who've helped out with the PayPal button over on the right; it's definitely helped a lot. With luck, the book will sell next year and I can finally turn a corner, get a better apartment, and continue to have exploits here that you'll want to read about.


  1. I don't like mulled wine or vin chaud (are they the same thing?). People all around me seem so excited about vin chaud once it gets cold out, I just don't get it.

    Let us know how the biscuits in the duck fat turn out.

  2. Yeah, mulled wine = vin chaud, and I don't get it either.

    Duck fat biscuits were *excellent*.

    And I can't seem to comment on your blog, because yesterday I wanted to post Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," which is the soundtrack to your last post.

  3. Ed, these depressing "Christmas markets" are everywhere in France and all selling the same overpriced tat.
    As for your squash, just make it into a soup. Cut it into pieces, into the saucepan with a load of milk, some pepper & a bit of nutmeg (muscade) & bob's your uncle

  4. I think the French word "truc" is as close to "tchotchke" as you can get.

  5. I dunno; I always thought that meant "hint" or "suggestion." It does in food writing, anyway.

  6. For "tchotchkes" maybe "babioles". As for "truc", it is a versatile word. Depending on context it can have the abstract meaning of "trick", as in "Le truc pour réussir cette recette c'est de etc" or the concrete meaning of "thing", as in "Et sur le manteau de la cheminée trônait un truc vaguement égyptien". It can even refer to a person, as in "Truc-machin-chose [i.e., I can't remember his name] m'a dit &c"

  7. Hello, I'm planning trip to Montpellier this spring. Can you recommend cafes and/or restaurants in the middle part of the city? I love all kinds of food but I don't have a ton of money to spend every night.
    Plus, I would like to find a shop that sells spices or a market that would have spices to sell. any ideas? thank you KJR

  8. KJR, thanks for reminding me that I have a couple of restaurant reviews to post soon -- just need to photograph the restaurants in question. But this blog is full of restaurant reviews, all in the center city, since that's where I live. Just search through via the sort of index there on the right and you'll find 'em. Or do a keyword search on restaurants.

    As for the spices, I get mine at the market at the Arceaux on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. They're inexpensive and very fresh. There's another place in town called Pinto that's also got them, but it's expensive. And if it's more exotic stuff you're looking for, the Arab shops over in the Figuerolles section will have it.


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