Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to Eat Snails

As an avid reader of this blog, you will know that living with the Artist and myself are our two Scotty dogs, Molly and Ralph and Kat the cat. I do sometimes reflect on the reason for having animals living in the house. Why do you want to share your house with something that is smelly, pees on the floor and leaves dirty footprints and hair all over the place; that hinders your independence and costs more in vet bills than we spend on our own medical well-being? All they do is sleep and eat and demand to be taken for walks. And yet I miss them when I’m not with them. But what is it that I miss? They aren’t even cuddly.
Whatever, they’re here to stay and once a day I take them out for a walk along the river. It’s not a very exciting walk, but it gives them a run and takes about an hour.
Recently, on my walk, I noticed a woman wading through the grasses, picking something and putting it into a plastic bag. She was an elderly woman and was wearing a brightly coloured floral-print house dress. I wondered if she was collecting mushrooms or some fungal delicasy. I am naturally a curious person, some would call it nosey, and so when I walked past her later, I asked her what she was collecting.
She smiled and said she was collecting escargots and took one out of the bag to show me. Funnily enough I had just read an article about the dire state of the French Escargots, and how there had been a massive decline in their population and that they were being imported from Thailand at great expense! I remember being surprised by this as my courtyard is crawling with the buggers. The Artist regularly goes out with a large tub of table salt which he pours over any intrepid snail or slug making its way towards my pots of herbs or the cat food, for that matter (who would have known that slugs love Friskies Croquettes?). This has an almost instant effect, as the snail, or slug, turns itself inside out to get away from the salt. Quite nasty really, but it does stop them in their tracks and isn't toxic to birds. Afterwards you do have to clear away a slimy pile of salt of course or wait for the next downpour.
Anyway, to this woman, the snails were obviously a veritable treasure. She held one up for me to see. She then proceeded to tell me what you needed to do to make them palatable. She was speaking in a very heavy Provencal accent, so I’m not sure if I got it all, but here is the gist of it.
You put the snails in a bucket, or a hessian sack, with a lid, so they don’t escape and then you feed them herbs for two weeks, thyme, fennel, parsley, etc. you then boil them up with more herbs and garlic and eat them, along with a lot of butter, parsley and garlic, (the Holy Trinity of French cooking). She had different varieties of snails in her bag and showed me them all and told me their names and how to cook them. The small white ones, which couldn’t have had more meat in them than a lark’s tongue, you could eat immediately. I couldn’t imagine why you would bother, but then you could say the same thing about a larks tongue! I thanked her for her information and carried on homeward bound.
A few days later, I was re-potting some of our herbs and noticed that there were a lot of snails stuck to the outside of the old pots. In fact two were in the throes of copulating, they were stuck together end to end with lots of foam coming out of them! ‘Not in my garden you don’t’ I said in my Margot from 'The Good life' voice as I picked them up by their shells and put them in the beds of Souleiado, opposite us. I picked up the rest of the snails, there really were quite a lot of them, and dropped them into a plastic bowl, thinking I’d put them in the Souleiado bed as well. As I was plopping them into the plastic bowl, it occurred to me that actually, what I had here was in fact a gastronomic commodity, and to throw them away, when so many people were out there searching through the undergrowth for them, was surely rather profligate. What is more, I knew exactly where these came from and they were wholly organic? Imagine the price for organic snails! Before I knew what I was doing, I was picking thyme, parsley and rosemary from my pots and putting it in with the snails and I covered the bowl with a piece of cardboard that happened to fit the bowl perfectly.
I monitored them over the next few days, and soon learned their preferential eating habits. They liked parsley and thyme, but weren’t keen on the rosemary or sage. It did occur to me that I was in fact feeding them exactly what I was trying to inhibit them from eating in the first place. There was a difference, though, I was now in control and they weren’t just helping themselves.
I carried on feeding them over the next few days, adding things like carrot tops and the outer leaves of a lettuce. I also had long discussions with people who came to the house and asked their advice. Cyril, a trainee architect who is drawing plans for us, told me that as a child they would collect snails and feed them on herbs that they found in the hills, another friend told me that you have to feed them flour. This fattens them up apparently, and gets rid of their bitter tasting slime. Maybe it dehydrates them from within. Whatever, in went the flour with the herbs.
Then after about 10 days, we had the most all mighty thunderstorm, the cardboard lid disintegrated and many of the snails broke out, making a last, floury bid for freedom. I must say, I wasn’t all that sorry. I had become quite fond of them, once you start feeding something, how do you differentiate between it being dinner or a pet?
That night the Artist went out to buy supper and came home with a bag of frozen snails that he had bought for €6 and they were already stuffed.
I decided that some things are best left to the professionals, and snail farming, I had to concede, might be one of those things.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


October is the official beginning of autumn, and I always feel slightly guilty that it is my favourite month. Guilty because everyone else is bemoaning the end of summer and I am secretly welcoming the onset of cooler weather and shorter days. But what I love about October (other than it being the month of my birthday, a throwback to my childhood I’m afraid) is not so much that the weather is getting cooler, but that it is heralding a change of season. This is most apparent in the market, where the fruits and vegetables on sale are completely different from one month to the next and there is always something new to try and experiment with.
I decide to go to Arles market this Saturday, my sister and her husband are visiting and I thought we could combine shopping with a bit of sight seeing. I have never been to the Arles market, and it is with some anticipation that we set off. I decide to have a dog free day and, Ralph, my Scotty dog, looks at me accusingly, as I leave the house without him. ‘Where am I going that he can’t come?’ His look implies. I promise to take him for a walk in the Alpilles when I get back, which, thank God, is now open again for walking.
We get to Arles and park the car. The first impression of the market is that it is huge. It is goes on for what seems like miles, down both sides of the Boulevard des Lices, which runs alongside the old city walls. One side is vegetable produce; the other side is arts and crafts. We proceed along the vegetable side.
I spot quite a few of the same stallholders that come to Tarascon. I see the man from St.Rémy and introduce him to my sister. He asks where my dog is. I tell him I had to leave him behind today. This month on his stall he has a large array of pumpkins, squashes and root vegetables: leeks, carrots and small turnips. The French are quite keen on their turnips and I decide to buy some with their tops still on. I also buy a butternut squash from him and tell him I am going to make a soup with it, with peanut butter. He just shrugs as if to say, “I sell the veg. What you do with it is not my concern.”
The first time I ever tasted butternut squash was in Upstate New York and it was served exactly in this way, as a soup with peanut butter. I was so enthralled by it’s nutty, velvety smooth taste, enhanced by the peanut butter, that I decided to try and make it at home, and it has become one of my staple soup recipes ever since.
We move on. There are stalls heaped with wild mushrooms. I ask the stallholder where they are from. He says he can’t tell me, thinking that I am after his closely guarded, secret mushroom spot. I laugh and say that I merely wondered if they were local or not, which he assures me they are, making a large, expansive gesture with his arms to demonstrate the countryside around us. There are mainly chanterelles and ceps, great piles of them. Both of which are my favourite. I take a handful of each. I used to pick them myself on Ashdown Forest as a girl; we would take them home and cook them gently with butter and then eat them with a sprinkling of parsley on toast. Another reason for this being my favourite time of year!
We move on further down the boulevard, passed the stalls selling soap and lavender oil; passed the cheese stalls; passed the stalls cooking meat on a spit; passed the stall selling tapinades, marinated cloves of garlic, dried fish and olives in all different colours and sizes.
Further towards the end of the market, the stalls take on a more Moroccan feel, catering for the large North African population of Arles. There are stalls displaying the most amazing array of spices that I have ever seen outside of Zanzibar. The colours and the variety of just one stall are enough to inspire a whole coffee-table book’s worth of colour photos. There are literally piles of different spices: curries, chilli peppers, paprika, saffron, cloves, cumin. lavender and even little tiny rose buds, all in the most vivid colours. There is also an assortment of different scented teas. I feel compelled to fill and buy the little jars that they sell alongside the spices, as much for their bright colours to liven up my kitchen shelves as to perk up the flavours of my cooking. Recently a friend said that he had problems finding the right spices to make an Indian curry. He obviously hadn’t been to Arles market; either that or it was an excuse not to invite us round for supper.
Further on there is a stall selling everything for the Hamman, black soap, body scrubs and oils and scratchy mittens. I have never been to the Hamman in Arles, but it is definitely on my list of ‘must-do-soon.’
Finally we get to the end of the market and come to a little square where there are many stalls selling fresh fish. As it is passed noon, they are all packing up and the pavement is strewn with ice and water. No doubt they have been up for hours and looking forward to going back to their homes for their lunch.
My mobile phone rings. It is the artist.
“I was just wondering where you were,” he asks, ”and whether you have Ralph with you.”
I later learn that whilst we were away, Ralph had somehow escaped from the house and was missing for a couple of hours. Worried, the Artist, walked along the streets asking neighbours if they had seen him. As he walked passed the Gypsy bar a few streets away from our house, wondering whether he should report the missing dog to the Police, the barman, Marc came out and said “If you’re looking for your dog, he’s here.” Sure enough, there he was, curled up in the corner, fast asleep as if chez lui. “He’s been here a couple of hours,” Marc said in French, “I think he was looking for you.”


A handful of wild mushrooms, chanterelles or ceps or both, sliced
50 gr Butter,
Splash of Olive oil
I red onion
350gm Arborio rice
1 glass of white wine
1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock.
1 tbls parmesan
Chopped parsely

Heat the stock in a pan. Meanwhile in another pan, melt the butter and add a glug of olive oil. Then add the wild mushrooms and onion. Cook for about five minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the rice and stir until until every grain is coated with the butter and oil, then add the glass and wine and stir until most of it has evaporated. Then add a ladle of hot stock and carry on stirring, until it has been absorbed, then add another ladle, until all the stock has been used up. Keep stirring throughout! Then take it off the heat, add the parmesan and another knob of butter and the chopped parsely.
Serve immediately with extra parmesan.
If you have any dried mushrooms in the cupboard, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes and add this to the stock for added pungency.

Wild mushrooms are also delicious fried gently in butter and folded into an omelette.

I small to medium butternut squash
1 tbls. Peanut butter
2 tbls. Olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 sprig Thyme
Coarse Camargue salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock, heated

Preheat the oven to 200c. Cut the squash lengthwise, remove seeds and pulp and then cut each piece into four and place into a baking dish. Cover with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, garlic slices and crumbled thyme. Bake in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the squash is soft. Scoop the flesh from it’s skin and place along with the garlic and escaped oil into a pan, add the peanut butter and a few grinds of the pepper mill. Heat and stir. After a minute or two, add the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Then whiz with a hand whizzer, or place in a blender until smooth and creamy. Season according to taste.

1 bunch of turnip tops
2 tbls olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
200g dried or fresh pasta
1 anchovy fillet, rinsed in water and chopped
1 small dried chilli

Blanch the leaves from the turnip tops in boiling water for a minute. Then remove from the water, squeeze and chop.
Warm the olive oil in a pan and add the garlic and finely chopped chilli and cook gently until soft. Then add the turnip tops and toss in the chilli and garlic oil. Turn down the heat and add the anchovy fillet.
Meanwhile cook the pasta and when it is al dente take a ladle of the cooking water and add it to the pan with the turnip tops. Drain the pasta and add to the turnip mixture, cooking it gently for another few minutes until it is well mixed. Pour over some more olive oil, salt and pepper and serve.

You can use brocolli or spinach instead of the turnip tops.

Wine suggestions to go with the above:
2003 Gérard Bertrand Minervois Les Matins d’Aurore

2005 Danjean-Berthoux Givry 1er Cru La Plante

2004 Château la Clotte-Fontane Coteaux du Languedoc Crémailh

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Artists in Tarascon

Just over a year ago, the Artist and I noticed that someone in our street had opened what looked like an atelier, or gallery. There were paintings on the walls and a man could be seen in the back painting on an easle. It was like a reconstructed scene of the life of Van Gogh in a TV documentary (I know I keep going on about Van Gogh, but he was local). We were intrigued, as we have always talked about opening an atelier on the ground floor of our house. Anyway one day, as I walked passed on my daily walk with Molly and Ralph the man came out onto the street and he introduced himself to me as Francis and said that he had heard that my husband was an artist and was wondering if he wanted to join the Artist Association of Tarascon. I passed the message on, and after handing over €50 to Francis, who turned out to be the treasurer of the association, the Artist became a fully signed up member.
The first event that we went to was a dinner at Le Bistrot des Anges, a restaurant in le place de Marie (real name le place de Marche). It started, as all these things do, with aperos (aperitifs, pastis or wine) and speeches. The president introduced himself, his name was Christian, and he welcomed everyone and talked about all the things the association was hoping to accomplish. Various other people also spoke, including the Mayor himself who had popped in on his way home to give the event his blessing. There was a photographer taking photos throughout the speeches and aterwards all the members gathered outside for a group photo. There was a good turn out, maybe 50 people or so. I had no idea there were so many artists living in Tarascon. Most of them were over the age of 60, but there were a few youngsters, (under retirement age) like ourselves. Over dinner we met Fred and Nadine. Fred owns the house where Francis has his gallery and Nadine is his girlfriend. Fred is short with spikey salt and pepper hair and makes teeth, Nadine is slim with short cropped hair and does painting and decorating. After much eating and drinking and making conversation with the other artists about what kind of art they made and what inspired them, Fred invited us back to his house for more drinks. Fred had been married to an English woman and loves all things English (maybe not his ex. but he didn't say). On the top floor of his four storey house, he has a jacuzzi (the French are mad for Jacuzzis and it seems they always want to put them on the top floor of their houses, what happens if they spring a leak?) Opposite the jacuzzi is a mural of a classical landscape which had been painted by Francis in lieu of rent for the gallery space, where he also lived. Francis used to be a builder, but had given it up to paint full time. He was also in something like the French equivalent of the territorial army.
The next artist association event that we took part in was a weekend when all the artists showed their work in Les Halles - the street leading to the Marie with covered arches on either side. There was quite an eclectic mix of work of Provencal landscapes, poppies, lavender, bulls and women in traditional costume. The man next to us specialised in 3D ceramic reproductions of classic cars; they were very detailed and he had been very inventive with what he used for details like a spoked wheel or a steering wheel. Unfortunately not very many people came to look at the work, and even fewer bought anything and other than a cavalcade of classic English cars like 1930's MGs and Daimlers, which happened to be passing through Tarascon that day, sounding their claxons, (the man next to us got very excited) there was very little passing trade.
At some point in the day, Francis turned up. He had a row with the President, (Christian) because he hadn't been told about the weekend and hadn't been asked to participate. The cracks were beginning to show and we feared that the writing was on the wall for the Association.
That was the last we heard about it until The Artist got a call from a woman inviting him to attend a meal at the restaurant Le Provencal last week. Unfortunately I couldn't go, but he related the evening back to me. None of the original members were there, the President is now a woman and Francis, who has since been kicked out of Fred's place for not paying any rent or bills was last seen painting a mural in the Kebab/Sandwich take-away cafe on the main road around Tarascon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ghost of a Kat

One of my favourite films is Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. I love the opening scenes of him trying to feed his cat. He has run out of cat food and makes some horrible mess with tuna and yogourt which the cat quite understandably dismisses. He then goes to the supermarket in the middle of the night, but they have run out of the only brand the cat will eat, so he buys another brand. He then goes home to the waiting cat and transfers the cat food he has bought (having locked the cat out of the kitchen so he can't see what he's doing) into the empty tin of the cat's favoured brand of cat food, he then lets the cat in the kitchen and puts the ersatz food in the cat's bowl. The cat isn't fooled and goes off, never to be seen again and Elliot Gould, who plays Marlowe, is left devastated and lonely, searching for his cat (and various other missing persons) for the rest of the film. Anyone who has a cat, knows how accurate this portrayal of a man (or woman) and his feline friend is. Cats cannot be trained to do what you want, (I've never seen a cat riding a bicycle at the circus) they only do what they want and you become a slave to their whims. Our cat is called Kat, formerly named Ghost. Ghost came to us with his brother, Rocket, both ginger tom kittens, Rocket, the darker of the two, was far more gregarious and loved to be picked up and stroked, Ghost was shy, ran away from people and with his pale colouring seemed to disappear against the stonewall of our courtyard. The kittens lived in our new house which was being done up whilst we lived in our much smaller old house which had no outside space. We came over and fed them everyday and the builders looked after them when we weren't there. This worked very well until the kittens became older and bolder and decided they wanted to go out and see a bit more of the World. The last time we saw the kittens together, was one evening when we were walking passed the house on our way back from the restaurant Le theatre. They were both hanging out the second storey window screeching at us like tortured prisoners, as we went by. I made a joke about kamikaze kittens and the next day they were gone. We stuck a photo of them with our phone number onto the shutters of our house, asking people to call if they had seen them. A few people called, one lady to say that she had seen the kittens at our window a few days before and another to say she liked the photo; in fact we had to reprint the photo as it kept getting nicked and another person in our street had rather suspiciously put cat food outside her door. After a few days we got a call from the Print/Fax shop down the road. A little Moroccan girl had found one of our kittens and when we went to pick it up, it turned out to be Ghost. We have never seen Rocket again, though there have been reported sightings in the next street of a very handsome ginger tom wearing a red collar..... And then somewhere along the line Ghost became Kat and has been Kat ever since. He is still weary of people and you can only stroke him if he wants you to, otherwise he will get up and leave. He likes to go out at night. He rushes across the road and runs up the gates of Souleiado, (how do they do that?) which is the fabric museum and shop opposite us and disappears into their courtyard. He usually comes back the next morning, howling to be let in before the morning traffic starts (around 7am) but sometimes he is gone for a few days and in the past has stayed away for as long as a week. I often wonder what he does and where he goes and wish I could put a little camera on his head to see what he gets up to. Maybe he doesn't get up to much, maybe he just finds a dark spot, curls up and goes to sleep. What I do know is he comes back ravenous and like Elliot Gould's cat in the Long Goodbye, he is very fussy about his food. He won't eat from a tin that has already been opened and kept in the fridge and he won't eat any food that he has left in his bowl. Hence we give him sachets of food which are about twice the price of the tinned food. As we are in the middle of a 'Crise' as its called here, I am always trying to think of ways to fool him. I add a bit of hot water to his food and stir it around pretending I have only just put it down, or I add a bit of new food and stir it in with the old. Anyway, hours are wasted and usually to no avail. Recently there was a deal at my local supermarket for 8 tins of Whiskas for the price of 6. I snapped it up, thinking that if Kat liked it, I could get back into buying tins. Huge success, Kat loves it; so much so that he is eating a whole tin of it a day and doesn't care how long its been lying around. I went back to the shop to buy the rest of the stock on offer, but they had sold out and I am now left buying vast quantities of the most expensive cat food on the market to keep Kat satiated and my bid to economise hasn't worked at all. My friend Celia who lives near Uzes, says she thinks they put something in Whiskas that makes the cats frantic and into Whiskas addicts; she feeds her cat frogslegs, you can find them frozen and cheap as chips in most supermarkets, I might try them next.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring at last

What a difference a day makes! The Mistral only lasted two days after all and today felt like Spring had finally arrived. Provence doesn't suit the grey, or the cold, it needs sunshine and warmth to bring out its colours, and they were all out on parade today! There were bright flowers freshly planted on les rondpoints (roundabouts) and the cyclists were out in their yellow, red and blue lycra shirts. People had taken off their heavy winter coats and were walking around in t.shirts and I suddenly remembered why I live in Provence.
This morning being Tuesday, was market day in Tarascon and it was full and bustling again after the quiet winter months. There were even parasols up to shade the produce from the sun, a far cry from last week, when the wind would have blown them away. I went to the stall where I buy my goats cheese and eggs every week. The woman whose stall it is, no longer comes to Tarascon, even though she still produces the cheese and the eggs from her small holding. I rather liked her, she had unevenly dyed reddish brown hair and traces of lipstick around her mouth, she was permanently bent over and her hands were twisted with arthritis but her nails were always painted pink. I once asked her why she'd not been at the market for a few months after Christmas and she answered that the baby goats needed their mother's milk and the chicken weren't producing very much so it hadn't been worth her while. Her daughter now manages the stall, but she told me she won't take over from her mother when she finally stops working. Apparently the old lady still does Arles market on a Saturday, she has to be in her late seventies.
I decided to buy some chicken livers and went to the poultry trailer. The couple who run it raise all their own chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys and geese at Christmas. They also carry different types of game, probably given to them by the local chassueres to sell (they practically shoot everything that moves here). Around Christmas he had some phaesant priced at €17 each. I told him that in Shropshire, where we used to live, you could buy three brace for £12! "I know" he said, "You already told me that last year!"
Anyway I bought about 800 grms of plump chicken livers from him, more than I needed but I reckoned I could put the ones I didn't use in the freezer.
I then went home and made a chicken liver salad. Recipe to follow:
You need about three livers per person, a head of lettuce, preferebly freshly cut that morning, washed and arranged on individual plates, a tablespoon or so of butter, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, or balsamic and about two tablespoons of oil, ( I use oliveoil but you can use something more neutral like peanut oil).
Cut the livers in half, rinse them and discard any bits that don't look like they should be there and pat dry with a paper towell. Then heat the butter in the pan and when it is hot enough, but before it turns brown, add the livers. They will hiss and jump about, so put some sort of cover over them. Turn them over and cook them for between 3 and 8 minutes in total, depending on how well cooked you like them. Place the livers on top of the lettuce on each plate. Then deglaze the frying pan that you have cooked the livers in with the wine vinegar, scrapping any bits from the bottom of the pan, cook for about half a minute, and then take if off the heat and add the oil, mix it in with the vinegar and pour over the livers, add salt and a twist or two of the pepper mill. Serve with crusty French bread (bought that morning in the market!)
Easy peasy, and more delicious than foie gras, which is far too rich for my taste.
I also like to make Chicken liver pate, my favourite is Nigel Slater's Chicken liver and mushroom pate from The Observer, (Google it).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day 2 of the Mistral. Imagine standing on the top of Beachy Head during a gale, that is what it feels like when the Mistral is blowing, only its all around you and there's no getting away from it. It flattens the grasses in the field, and even in our courtyard, which has three storey high walls, it knocks over flower pots, tears the washing off the line and takes off with whatever isn't tied down (like the artists tent one summer, which he had put up as a temporary studio).
Anyway, as this is bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, and there's quite a lot of things Darwin going on, I thought I'd add my little bit. This morning I got up to find a sock which had had the entire foot bit eaten away, on the kitchen table. The Artist told me he had put it there as evidence and it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out who the culprit was. All fingers pointed to Molly. For as long as we have had her she has had a fetish for the Artists socks. "Why does she always eat mine?" He asked. I pointed out that it probably had to do with the fact that he has smelly feet and I don't. His daughter too, has the most stinky feet, even at the tender age of 12. "It's a gene thing," I said. "Some people have smelly feet, some people don't, like halitosis". I then wondered aloud whether smelly feet were a throw back to when we walked on four legs and our feet gave off an odour so that other people, or ape people, or whatever we were then, could track each other, for mating purposes or to keep tabs on one another. I then surmised that because I don't have smelly feet, I must be further evolved than the Artist. "Put that in your blog then," the artist said. So I have.
Speaking of Van Gogh (previous blog) I have just seen my first Iris of the year. They just grow randomly by the side of the road. Also the almond blossoms are beginning to bloom in the orchards.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Le Mistral

People are always surprised when they come to Provence in the winter time, that it gets as cold as it does. There are days, in fact New Year's day a couple of years ago, when you can sit outside and bask in the sunshine in a t.shirt, but there are also days when the wind blows so bittingly cold, that it feels like Siberia. The wind of course is Le Mistral and it comes rushing down the Rhone from the snow capped Alps, bringing with it the freezing cold air of the mountains. Before I moved here, I had heard of le Mistral (how poetic to give a wind a name, in England we just have Easterly or North wind) but never quite understood how hugely it figures in the Provencal life and landscape. It is not until you live here that you realise why all the tips of the trees are bent, and why Van Gogh's landscape paintings of this area look like swirling kaleidoscopes; he was painting the effect of the Mistral on the countryside and it looks exactly like that. Obviously what he saw on the outside was mirroring what he was feeling on the inside and they do say the Mistral can make you go mad. In retrospect, it was probably not the best place for a painter with a tendency towards mental instability to spend his winter months. But then his pain has been a lot of other people's gain.
When the Mistral blows, no one goes out. The streets are empty and it becomes the topic of every conversation. The local people even have a saying as to how long it will last. It can blow for three days, six days nine or even twelve days (something like that anyway). The longer it blows obviously the more exasperated everybody gets. Its not all bad though, they say it blows away decay and disease and it is why the vines of the Rhone valley (Chateauneuf du Pape for one) don't succumb to mildew. And once the Mistral has gone, there is a great sense of calm and relief, the sun feels warm and everyone is happy again.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Scotty dogs in Provence

Back to us and Tarascon. The Artist was only in Mr Bricolage (the local DIY store about 4 kms away from us) the other day buying nails, when the man serving him said, "Aren't you the man with the two scotty dogs?" only in French, and he probably didn't say Scotty dogs either, he is far more likely to have said 'les Scottish', 'les Black and White' (after the whiskey), or 'les Chippies' (a clothing company which uses a Scotty dog as it's logo). Also, being in Provence, he wouldn't have said chiens, but chings, as down here they finish off all their words with a ing. So lapin becomes laping; the Artist once had a very confusing trip to the local Casino to buy some prunes for a rabbit stew I was cooking- Rabbit with Agen Prunes, Rick Stein, A French Odyssey - and being a chatty sort of person, he told the woman at the till that it was for the lapin, which she repeated back to him as Laping, and so they went backwards and forwards (you say lapin, I say laping....) Anyway Scotties aren't a very common breed in France and therefore they get a lot of attention when we take them out; in fact they're not that common even in the UK, of course George Bush changed all that in the US with Barney - one of our favourite Private Eye captions is the one written under the photo of him disembarking from Air Force One carrying Barney that reads 'George Bush winning the War on Terriers! - (how we howled when we first saw it), consequently we are constantly stopped in the street and asked if Molly and Ralph are twins, probably for lack of anything else to say. I suppose they do look quite similar if you don't know them, but to us they look very different. Ralph is quite large for a Scotty, and were his legs a bit longer, would be a decent sized dog, he's also quite heavy (back to the George Bush photo, you wouldn't be able to balance Ralph on your arm whilst disembarking from a plane). He is very handsome, and no doubt could win a lot of prizes. He has slim hips and a large head, which is good according to Crufts, but unfortunately there isn't much between the ears and he is, sadly, thick as shit! Molly is more of a round ball, she has a much smaller head and tends to pin her ears back making them disappear and giving her a snake-like look, she is however very sensitive and intelligent, in fact a philosopher, according to the Artist.
So you can imagine our surprise when we first went to the local vet and he announced with glee that he too is the proud owner of a Scottish Terrier. Whenever we take either of the dogs to see him (generally Ralph, he's overbred and there's always something wrong with him) we are made to look at photos of the vet's dog on his computer. Most of them seem to have been taken at his birthday party and feature him (the dog) wearing a red bandana sitting in front of a birthday cake decorated with sparklers. The vet then, almost with tears in his eyes regales us with stories about how stupid his dog is, how he watched him trying to navigate a sprinkler in the back garden, only with him ending up walking straight through it, or something like that - he told it in French, so I may have missed a bit; meanwhile there's a waiting room full of wheezing old men and their sick dogs, patiently waiting for their appointments, but that doesn't stop the vet from telling more stories and telling us how disappointed his dog will be to hear that Molly has been 'done'. He is probably the only vet in the country to have discouraged us to have Ralph 'done'. This led to Ralph spending many months in a lampshade, as for some reason or another (probably because they're so close to the ground) his balls got infected and he had to be stopped from licking them (apologies for the squeamish). Anyway we finally had them off, and he's been a much happier dog since (less like a Glaswegian at closing time, sorry Glasgow, that's the Artist's joke, not mine). The vet also suggested that Ralph might need to go to a dog psychiatrist in Paris, I can't remember why and needless to say we didn't follow up on that one.
One evening, when we were over at Chantal's, she told us about the amateur dramatics, singing and dancing show she had been in at our local theatre (a beautiful miniature baroque theatre, complete with cherubs carved out of the stone facade) and she lent us a DVD of the 'spectacle' which somehow we had manage to miss. We put it on our DVD player as soon as we got home, and there were Sylvie and Chantal singing away in Victorian costume, twirling their parasols; next on, and you can imagine our surprise, was none other than our vet, wearing a stripy t.shirt with a beret and a very similar, if not the same, red bandana that his dog had been wearing in his birthday photos, singing old chansons! We nearly rolled off our seats!
Sadly the vet has now left his practice and set up a second-hand bookshop in Tarascon. Taking the dogs to the vet is just not going to be the same.