Tour de France 2012

Today was Tour de France day. For the third time since we’ve been here, the Tour has come through the Possum Kingdom.

It’s always a fun day, even if the actual cycling part only lasts for mere seconds.

But it’s not really about the cycling; it’s about the experience.

We started noticing that the population was growing several days ago. The camp ground looks completely packed for the first time since we’ve lived here. There were also large numbers of strangers (and their dogs) wandering around town.

This morning, by 10:00, people were already taking chairs down to the race zone. As soon as we heard the first loudspeakers, we went over to wait for the “swag” mobiles of the pre-race Caravan. Our friends Diane and Evan are here, and they’re excellent at catching the best swag as it flies through the air. We gathered a whole tote bag-full . When the caravan finished, I went home and made us a picnic lunch of meatloaf sandwiches, artisanal potato chips and homemade strawberry ice cream (my first batch but not my last). I took it all down to the race course and we ate it done there.

The whole village turns out, so it’s a social event as well as a race. I even gave some ice cream to a couple of neighbors (who later came by with eggs from their chickens). All-in-all a truly fun day. And, here is a link to the footage of the actual race; enjoy!

Ciao for now.

Randy

The Pyrenees on Tuesday

 

As most of you will know by now, most of Europe has been in the grip of a Siberian cold front. In France, this is the longest lasting cold spell of this intensity since 1996 or 1997 and,  no one was really prepared for it. Certainly WE were not prepared!

Here in the Possum Kingdom, some of our temperatures, including windchill, were down to -20 C during the night. And, for this California girl, that is COLD!!! It has been so cold that we have taken to using the car to get the dogs to a place where they can do their thing swiftly, then return to the relative warmth of their chauffeur driven chariot. And, they don’t complain!!!

In fact, since the snow over the weekend, we’ve HAD to walk them this way, because the salt and cold temperatures were so uncomfortable for them that they would suddenly just stop walking and hold a paw up in the air in confusion and discomfort. What’s a doggie-mom to do? I dug the car out and away we went.

Here at our little nest, our boiler has been going almost non-stop, and we keep the thermostat at 17 C, which is way below the local average. We even had to fill up on oil several weeks earlier than we usually do; but we couldn’t take the risk of running out, which is not only uncomfortable, but bad for the boiler as well.

On top of that we’ve been using our fireplace as both supplemental heat and emotional comfort. The dogs are thrilled and argue over who gets the best spot for napping:

Shmoo won this time!

I still remember how afraid our dear Diva Maggie McMiggins was of the fire. Clearly, neither of the current two canine residents share that concern.

But all is not warmth and happiness here. Our doorbell appears to have frozen and no longer works. I brought it inside, because people kept pressing it and assuming we weren’t home when we didn’t answer. It works fine inside, so I’m hoping once there’s a thaw it will be back to its chiming self.

Then, yesterday, I was in the midst of  doing laundry when the washer started flashing the error code that means something is blocked. I assumed it was the usual dog hair or occasional escaped sock problem. The unfortunate part is that to find out, you have to open the filter at the bottom of the machine, which pours water out all over the floor of the garage. Only this time, I did it and didn’t find any blockage. I looked more closely at the booklet and saw it could also be the drain causing the problem. When I went to check the drain, I realized that the water had frozen solidly inside it! No wonder it wasn’t going anywhere. So, I drained enough water to get my sheets out, then finished rinsing them in a basin in the sink, just like Grandma! Now, we just have to wait for the pipes to defrost.

And, just to be clear, this is a pipe that is INSIDE my house in the garage. Now, that is cold!

There have been several articles in the local paper about various disasters caused by this cold wave, including the probable devastation of most of the current vegetable crops and, truly sadly, hundreds of deaths of the Flamingos in Narbonne. The poor things are not built to cope with this kind of cold.

Good news is that the temperatures are starting to rise a bit. Right now it is +2 C, which is the warmest it has been in well over a week. We’re even supposed to have rain, as opposed to snow, sometime next week.

One thing  you’ve got to say; when winter decided to visit, it did it in a big way!

Ciao for now.

Randy

Looking forward to 2012

 

Sunrise in the Possum Kingdom

Morning walkies has compensations

 

So, here we are with January almost over and I  have been on radio silence. As always, it has less to do with desire and more to do with lack of time.

I was more than delighted to see the back of 2011, which has to go down as one of the worst years of my life. Of course, losing Mom had a lot to do with that, but it wasn’t the only thing. Somehow, it seemed to be a year filled with drama on the parental front (JM’s as well as mine), and there were many small, personal issues that left me with a general sense of being unhappy with life in general.

2012 has not begun great either, but I have high hopes that it will improve. I know that some of the lessons I learned in 2011 will stick with me: one of those lessons being that I am often way too trusting. I can see why our American openness can often be a handicap, but I am loathe to change too much.

At any rate, I see that I need to do some re-evaluating of life. I don’t think I will ever change from a glass half-full to a glass half-empty kind of person; that seems to be an attitude with which we’re born. However, I do think I will need to learn to check some of my enthusiasm and be slightly more cautious and suspicious before jumping into some types of decisions.

Sorry to be cryptic; but there are things one doesn’t really write in a blog. Especially if one is trying to be more cautious with their choices!

There are Possum Kingdom events to write about here, however. At Christmas, our friends Dave (also known as BD or Bikey Dave) and his charming wife Toni put on their second annual pantomime with a group of both French and British participants. It was great fun for all, and we surprised ourselves by not only enjoying it, but offering to become involved in their small repertory company to help them put on further  plays during the year. JM found a cute, one act French farce that we translated, and which will be performed sometime close to Easter. You can check outBD and Toni’s bike holidays at their website. Don’t forget that the Tour de France will, for an unprecedented second year in a row, be having a stage starting in Limoux!

I think that getting involved in more social events is really important for JM and I to help us get over the rather non-social attitude we had developed over the last couple of years with caring for Mom. It’s easy for that nesting instinct to kick in and keep you from doing outside activities. I know that will make us both feel happier.

We are also, in that spirit, starting a French conversation group for some of our English-speaking friends, to help them feel more comfortable integrating with the community at large. It should be both fun and helpful to all. For the moment, we’re holding it Saturday mornings at 10:00 here during the market. If it gets too large, then we’ll have to find a new location.

So on that more upbeat note:

Ciao for now,

Randy

 

Okay, so I didn't have a picture of the actual cake

Cheating here; not Amish Friendship Bread!

 

Every year, most of France has events for the “Telethon,” which is similar, I think to the Labor Day telethon in the States. I assume there are televised events, but mostly I’m familiar with the local events that villages like ours put on. One of the things we do here is a bake sale on the Saturday market and for the last couple of years I’ve contributed a little something.

So, this year I gave them an Amish friendship bread. I dropped it off at the town hall yesterday, but I didn’t get over there until close to noon. A couple of the ladies who run the charity table started chasing me in the street. They wanted to know if that cake was mine. Slightly worried about why they wanted to know I admitted my culpability in the matter. They all wanted the recipe. Apparently, because it was a big cake, they decided to cut it into pieces to sell individually, and they had to taste it first. I don’t think any of it made it to the sale table! They all bought slices for themselves and one lady bought half of the cake to take home for her family.

I explained the concept and promised I’d give them some starter and translate the recipe.

Anyway, I was seriously flattered. There were other cakes on the table that hadn’t sold even one piece and this is France, after all. Food IS important here, and an American cake impressed everyone.

Now I guess I have to make some more starter, because I actually got tired of keeping mine alive, and how much cake can two people eat?

 

Ciao for now,

Randy

Occupy Court Colbert

Occupy Cours Colbert

 

The protestors are napping, as they dream of meals to come.

I’ve temporarily switched them to good quality canned food, as I needed the freezer space for the humans in the house (what a concept!) The good side of this is that it is a bit easier. The bad side is that if, like this week, I miscalculate when I should place my order, I wind up without any food for the canines.

Dawg forbid they should eat the stuff out of a bag. To be honest, they probably wouldn’t mind, but we would, as every time  I try to feed them dried food, there is an outbreak of deadly festulance that almost drives JM and me out of the house. Not to mention the diarrhea that makes Peaches, in particular, demand to be taken out for urgent  3 am walks; something I would truly rather not do.

So, when I looked and noticed that my order from Zooplus was not going to be delivered before Friday at the earliest, I went on a hunt to, quite literally, bring home the bacon! In fact, it turned out to be turkey. I went over to the Huit á 8 and discovered two turkey legs that had reached their sell by date. They were on special for 2€ a piece, making them even less expensive than canned food. I snatched them up and have them in the pressure cooker with a bunch of vegetables.

It made JM and I realize that our dogs probably take for granted the fact that they dine like kings and think that ALL dogs should live this way. We are going to puppy sit good-dog Vicky while her human slave is in the hospital having hip replacement surgery. Vicky eats kibble. Clearly, I cannot give her kibble while my dogs get turkey stew or similar. So, the question is: what will Vicky say when she goes back home? Already she sits outside our door half the time, staring intently at the door knob and willing it to open so that treats will fall directly into her waiting mouth.

I think the protests will be long and tough, and all I can do is hope that they don’t tell 1000 of their doggie friends about the delights that reside Chez Lofficier!

Ciao for now.

Randy

Hi All!

I know he went in that Post Office!

 

The time has, as always, flown by. I KNOW I owe you the rest of the description of our trip to Toulon, as well as an update on events here in the Possum Kingdom.  My only excuse is that we seem to be as busy as always these days.

We had a mostly glorious Fall, with days that were so breathtaking It was hard to sit inside and not enjoy them. I have always loved this season, as I have said ad-nauseum, and this year has made a supreme effort to reinforce that love by providing warm days, crisp nights and stunning weather.

Not to say that we haven’t had some evil storms. We were spared the worst of it here, but anyone following the news knows that other parts of the South of France have not been so lucky. There was massive flooding in many areas, and, sad to say, lives lost as well.

But, for some reason, we remain in our “privileged land,” and seem to miss the worst of it. Although, last weekend the Mighty Hers was almost to the top of its banks in some places and there was real concern about flooding.

Our biggest problem is that there is a sewage pipe down near the gardens that has a major problem. We found raw sewage pouring out into the field where the dogs like to romp, as well as flowing directly into the river. We were able to corral a couple of members of the town council and show them some video that I’d taken during the worst of it. They are supposed to be contacting the mysterious organization known as “Veolia,” which, while pretending to be our water company, also seems to have its tentacles in many other pies. I am starting to think it’s a cover for SMERSH…

I suppose none of this sounds very exciting, but if you add it to trips to the wonderful Espezel Fair, the Apple Festival in Mirepoix, the many, many days I have lost lately trying to resolve an internet connection problem (Oh, Orange, you are such a disappointment!!!) and the usual errands, tasks and duties which comprise life its own-self, time just flies by.

I’ve also been doing a lot of cooking lately. I have been trying to “get off” of convenience products as much as possible. But that means spending way more hours in the kitchen. Still, the end result is worth it. I have, for example, discovered a nifty way to pre-cook potatoes so that you can have your own bags of frozen hash browns and “instant” mashed potatoes at the drop of a hat! And, I’ve rediscovered that 80s stand-by, Amish Friendship Bread and Starter. I’d forgotten how delicious that stuff is!

I think of all of you, my friends and loyal readers. And will try to do better.

Ciao for now

Randy

Possum Kingdom Soars

West Chalabre

Montgolfier Brothers invade the Possum Kingdom

 

I know I’ve mentioned, ad nauseum, how much I love the fall. This is one of the reasons why.

Suddenly, at the end of summer, there are all sorts of regional events that are way more fun to attend with smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. A case in point, this hot air balloon that was set up on the Champ LeGrand, also known as the school playing field, yesterday and this morning.

It went up last night in the dark, and was all lit up, then, this morning, it went up in daylight. Unfortunately, it was only for tethered flights, not very high off the ground. I didn’t want to go up in the dark, because I thought if I did it, I would like to see the town in daylight. Unfortunately, it was set up very early, and by the time we got there, it was just being deflated. But I still got that wonderful photo, so all was not lost.

Also this weekend was the Fete de la Noisette, where one of the highlights was the world championship of hazelnut spitting. You don’t see that everyday (and probably don’t want to, if I’m honest).

Mid-October will bring the Apple Festival in Mirepoix and the week after, the County Agricultural fair in Espezel. Both of these are just an invitation to overeat and spend money, and I look forward to them with delight each year.

Also, with the more comfortable temperatures, all of our neighbors spend lots of time outside, so we are all always visiting with each other, joking, chatting and generally enjoying life. And, since our friend, R, sits outside to smoke, he brings one more friendly face into the mix, as well as his wonderful dog, Vickie the Border Collie. We are now thinking of making it a rule that the only dog you can have if you live in our neighborhood is a Border Collie, although I don’t think that will be universally acceptable…

This, to me, is what it means to live in a village; frankly, you can’t beat it with a stick.

Ciao for now.

Randy

A Busy Start To Fall

20110924-183909.jpg

Somehow, the last week has just sped by.

We are letting a couple of friends stay in Mom’s old apartment, and one of them is going through some health issues. He is a general contractor by trade, but can’t really work at the moment because he needs a total hip replacement and until that is done, he’s in a lot of pain and really needs to stay in a place without a lot of stairs.

It works for us, because we found looking at Mom’s empty apartment incredibly sad, and I know she would like the idea of someone getting use out of it. Eventually, our friends will help us to fix up the apartment on the first floor so that that is livable as well. That’s not something we could afford to do on our own, so it’s a good deal for us all.

One of the problems that our friend, R, has, is that although he does speak enough French for conversation and work, medical and administrative French is a different kettle of fish. So we’ve also taken him under our wing to help with getting him situated with those things.

Thus, my week was taken up with medical visits. It’s interesting to see how the system works, especially when you are not the patient!

As with the U.S. And the UK, if you were self-employed and can’t work, you are pretty much screwed for collecting unemployment unless you had a special, private, disability insurance. Unfortunately, because the economic crisis in 2009 hit the construction industry hard, R had to declare bankruptcy in 2010 and, of course, cancelled his private insurance at the same time.

But, unlike in the U.S., this doesn’t mean no health care. In fact, all of his medical bills are being covered 100% by Social Security. He does not have to worry about dying in pain in the street or becoming homeless. Also, he is eligible for a small (and it is small) aid from the State that pays for food, and, if he wasn’t staying with us rent-free, he would also be able to get assistance to pay his rent. And, since there is always risk that results of a major operation won’t be what one hoped for, we were able to file forms for disability, which will take four to six months to be reviewed. Dawg willing, he will be fully recovered by then and won’t need more aid, but better to foresee all eventualities.

Not having to worry about things like that makes a difficult situation far more bearable. Sure, he has to go through the surgery and recovery, but at least he does it knowing that there will be no bills to pay afterward, and that once he is better, he can go back to working and creating a better life for himself, rather than spending the rest of his days burdened by a debt he will never be able to pay.

He has a surgery date for the beginning of December, to give him time to get various things taken care of, like all dental work. Hip replacements are VERY sensitive to bacterial infection, and active gum disease is a no-no. Poor R is terrified of dentists and hasn’t been to see one for ten years. This is very, very bad,and I think his upcoming dental care scares him way more than the hip surgery. Again, that will be covered by Social Security, so the only worry is pain, not bills.

Once the surgery is over, he’ll be able to come back to the apartment and, if he needs health aides, home health care workers will come to him, also covered by Social Security.

So, while nothing is ever perfect, this is certainly a far more humane system, and everyone, rich or poor, is entitled to health care when they need it. What a concept.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Baking Memories

Mini Corn Rye Rolls

People often ask me if there isn’t anything that I miss about the U.S. In the main, my answer is no. However, the few things that sometimes I DO get a hankering for are all food related.

Now, most things one can find through the various import stores. You may have to pay for them, but you can get them. Still, there are fresh things that just can’t be found.

A doctor once told me that his theory was that the foods you ate as a child had a resonance for you that new, “learned” foods would never have. And I think that for me there are several of those mostly things that come from the East Coast, where I grew up.

For example, I sometimes can almost taste a Taylor’s Pork Roll sandwich in my mind. The smell and taste of that will always be linked with childhood visits to the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Just writing about it I can taste it, smell it’s  odor mixed with that of fresh roasting peanuts from the Planter’s peanut store and the salt of the ocean. I can see my parents, the push chairs, the crowds, and once again I’m just a child.

I DO have a recipe for knock-off Pork Roll that I  plan to try later in the year, just to see if I can do it. But I have the strong feeling that it will never be the same.

But there are things that I CAN re-create successfully, and one of them is Jewish Deli Corn Rye. I have tried the recipe from “Secrets of a Jewish Baker,” and while that is successful, it’s also time consuming and needs to be planned out, as just making the sour takes several days. So, I wanted to create a recipe that was easy and above all, quick. I think I have succeeded.

Waiting for some lox

I suppose it seems silly to crave these things when I live practically next door to a bakery. But a French bakery, no matter how wonderful, will never be a Jewish Deli, and when that craving comes over you, the heart wants what the heart wants. So, here is what I do:

JEWISH DELI MINI-CORN RYE ROLLS

1 C rye flour

2 C white flour (I’ve used bread flour, all-purpose, a special pizza flour I get from Italy and a mixture of bread flour and something called semi-whole wheat. All have given good results)

1 1/4 C warm water (clearly, you may have to adjust this depending on the flour you use and weather conditions)

2T Olive Oil

2 tsp Sea Salt

1T sugar

2T Caraway seeds (if you hate caraway, leave them out, but I do think they are what “make” rye bread!)

1T lemon juice (this helps the yeast to work, but also I think it adds a small hint of sour without any taste of lemon in the final product)

1 pkg yeast

1 C leftover dough from last batch (this is optional, but over time, it builds the flavor and texture and eventually you have what is basically a sourdough starter and can leave out the yeast).

Cornmeal for sprinkling baking pan and top of bread

I mix this in my stand mixer. Because I’m lazy, I don’t proof the yeast. I put the rye flour in first, then sprinkle on the yeast, then add the rest of the flour. This lets me use water that is a bit hotter (from the tap, not microwaved) without killing the yeast. But if you want to proof the yeast the traditional way, go for it!

I toss in the rest of the dry ingredients and the leftover bread dough, including the caraway seeds, then pour in the oil, lemon juice and the water and start the mixer on slow. Once the majority of the flour is incorporated, I turn the speed up for kneading. I do keep an eye on it because the flour/liquid balance really needs adjusting as you work. Its amazing how a humid day or the batch of flour you use can affect the way the dough comes together.

Now, because of the rye flour, this is a sticky dough. I let the machine knead it until it mostly pulls away from the sides of the bowl and there is very little flour residue left. However, it never completely forms a tight ball the way a white bread will do. I always finish the kneading off by hand, and even once it is a ball, it remains a bit tacky. That’s okay.

I oil a bowl or a plastic container with a lid and throw the dough in there. One of the things I like about this recipe is that it’s very versatile. If I want to make the rolls quickly, I put the bowl (as long as it’s not metal!) into the microwave, set it at 350 watts and microwave for a minute, let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, than microwave at the same power for another minute. I leave the bowl in the microwave with the door closed, and let it rest for 20 minutes, and it has by then doubled and is ready for shaping and baking.

If, on the other hand, I don’t have time to bake it right away, I put the covered bowl in the fridge and leave it for several hours. This slows down the rising, and I have plenty of time to do other things without worrying about it.

Once it has risen, I take a chunk of dough that is 1/2 cup to 1 cup in size and put that in a reusable container with a lid. I chuck that into the fridge, but you can freeze it if you aren’t going to use it within the next few days.

The rest of the dough I separate into 8 pieces and form into rolls. I put them on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment that I’ve sprinkled with cornmeal. I like to roll the pieces in the cornmeal so that they have some on the top as well, because I think it gives them a nice, rustic appearance when they’ve baked.

I slice a cross into the tops then put them in 200 C (400 F) oven for 20 minutes.

You could also make this into a single, large loaf if you so desire; just adjust the baking time accordingly.

Ciao for now and Bon Appétit!

Randy

 

So Cool!

Did you mention food?

 

Not the weather, unfortunately, but a great new service available in the Possum Kingdom.

I have mentioned many times that there are days where I find the job of shopping for groceries outside of the village arduous, boring and time consuming. But, for the last few months, the SuperU in Mirepoix has  been advertising an online grocery service.

I’ve been tempted, but never got around to trying it. Now, they don’t deliver to us here in the Possum Kingdom, as we are too far away. But what they do offer is the equivalent of a personal shopper. You place your order with their website, pick a time when you want it to be ready and then go pick it up. The charge for this is 4 Euros, which is a bargain no matter how you look at it.

When  you get to the store, you go to the delivery bay and ring the bell. A very nice employee shows up, takes your name and brings all your groceries that have been nicely packed in boxes and then they even load them into your car! After that, it’s just a question of swiping your credit card and you’re done.

I never, ever shop on Saturdays. But I was out of almost everything, as it had been close to three weeks since I last went to do a big shopping trip. So I figured, what the heck, how awful could it be.

It wasn’t awful at all! It was brilliant! I even ordered a rosbif (that’s roast beef in French) and two kilos of figs, and they were all beautiful and perfect. The nice SuperU lady explained how she had looked for the farthest away “use by” dates on all the fresh things like milk and cheeses, and showed me that the one thing I had ordered that wasn’t in stock had been removed from the list and I wasn’t charged for it.

They threw in an insulated bag for the cold stuff and a second free, reusable shopping bag as a welcome gift, And, because it was my first order, I didn’t even get charged the 4 Euro fee. We had left the house at 2:30 and were back at the house with the groceries inside at 3:30! This has never happened before, since it takes 40 minutes just to get there and back.

Now, clearly, if there are special items that they have and which haven’t been added to the website,  you aren’t going to be aware of them. They don’t have EVERY item in the store online, although there is a place where you can ask for special things. So, I guess I will occasionally be going in to shop myself, but this has another huge benefit beyond the time saving: no impulse buying! If you don’t see it, you can’t buy it.

I have to admit that I am weak, and I am often tempted by things I see, even if I would never have considered buying them if I didn’t see them. So a system like this is ideal for me. It will undoubtedly save me money in the long run, because I will only purchase that which I know I need, not that which I merely want.

For you who live in big cities, this is nothing new, but for us out here in the Possum Kingdom, this is true progress and a service I plan to use in the future for sure.

Ciao for now.

Randy