Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snow and Corruption

I am told, for a successful blog, you need to send out posts on a regular basis. Something, which I have failed to do, as my followers will know (I have 13 to date, which is one more than You know Who, but I need more!). My excuse is that I have been away for all of February and the beginning of March and being a stickler for the truth; I cannot pretend to be in France when I’m not.
On my return to Provence in early March, I was hoping to see bright skies and brilliant sunshine, but instead what I saw on landing at Nimes airport was a blanket of snow! There had been blizzards the night before. In Provence? In March? My friend who was supposed to pick me up was snowed-in and I had to make my own chilly way from Nimes airport to Tarascon (navette from the airport to Nimes and then train to Tarascon FYI). When I finally got home, the gas boiler had gone out, and the house was freezing cold and the two trees in our courtyard had split in half due to the weight of the snow (actually I was quite happy about that, I never really liked them and now I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about being a tree murderer!) I’ve never heard so much blamed on the weight of the snow before, but maybe trees are less robust here. .
Also on everyone's lips, on my return, was the demise of our Mayor. It seems that whilst I was away, he had been held for questioning at Marseilles Police Headquarters on allegations of corruption for 24 hours! Our Mayor, who always looks so chic with his chapeau and silk tie, always friendly with a smile and a bonjour; always present at any function, ready with a speech and a toast and always obliging for any photo-op.
When I first heard the story, I had a ‘lost in translation’ moment and understood that he had been arrested on charges of accepting backhanders from the market holders, ‘sur les conditions d’attribution du marché public…’ Well, I thought to myself, how lucrative could that be? Taking a few euros from each stallholder in the Tuesday Market to guarantee them a good spot? Certainly not enough to risk your job and reputation? Then I actually read up on it and realised that it concerned allegations that the €4 million contract to transform the old military base of Tarascon into the new Law Courts had gone to a company favoured by the Mayor. A little more profitable, I’m sure if the allegations were true. Of course it is the company that didn't get the job that has made the allegations and the local regional elections at which the Mayor was going to stand were coming up.
We once visited the old Barracks, the Marie had invited us to a vernissage – (art opening) there of equestrian paintings. It was held in a huge 19th Century hall, which used to be the stables for the barracks for which, besides the book Le Tartarin de Tarascon, which apparently every school child in France has read, Tarascon is best known. Before the end of conscription (2001), huge numbers of young men passed through the barracks of Tarascon. All the buildings now lie empty like a ghost town within a town (or on the edge of town to be precise). Anyway, it turned out that besides being there to view the equestrian paintings, we were also going to be treated to the spectacle of performing horses, as the hall was now going to be their home. There were six white horses and six black horses, they were very beautiful and groomed to a shine with patent leather harnesses and they did all sorts of clever things around the ring, galloping round one way, then the other, then passing each other in a figure of eight and walking backwards out of the ring. All the while the ringmaster stood in the middle coolly cracking a long whip every now and then to make them go faster or slow down. He was dressed in black evening suit with a white shirt, you could almost imagine a Gauloise hanging from his lips he looked so cool. With the grand finale each horse reared on its hind legs and pawed at the air. One horse actually walked on its hind legs and then did a sort of curtsy. Now, as fun as it was to watch a horse balance on two legs, there was part of me that couldn't help think that it wasn't all together natural or necessary.
However the evening got us thinking about what the Marie was going to do with all those empty buildings and as the Artist is always on the look out for a studio space, he decided to ask someone at the Marie if they had any empty buildings to rent . Anyway, they said they didn’t know of any, which we thought strange at the time as we were standing in a whole enclave of empty buildings. But now I realise that they were all already allocated – that or we’re just not good enough friends with the Mayor!
During my research on this story, I found that the two Mayors previous to the one we have now had been arrested, jailed and or fined. Seems getting arrested for being Mayor comes with the territory, or rather the job.
I was musing on this whole affair as I walked past the present Law Courts, which are still in the centre of town, on my way to the weekly market. As I saw them huddled outside having a smoke, (I’m talking about the barristers in their black gowns, clutching their wigs) I thought about how I was going to miss them being there. They give the town a sense of drama. Sometimes you see a police car arriving at the back of the courts with a prisoner under guard, and the large iron gates clanking shut behind them and you wonder what the person is being accused of. A few years ago a film about the life of Camus came to town, they were doubling our Law Courts for one in Algeria, I don’t know if it was because the building is typical of a French municipal building of that time, or because of the easy availability of Algerian and Moroccans to work as extras.
The market this week was rather a desultory affair, the man from St Remy told me that the snow had ruined much of his produce and that the vegetable season was at least 3 weeks behind because of the cold weather. All he had for sale were leeks, cabbages and cauliflowers along with dandelion leaves, which I wasn’t in the mood to experiment with or get exited about. Instead I bought a big bag of carrots and oranges and called it a day.
Luckily we had covered up our lemon tree, which I had bought the year before for the Artist’s birthday and so I picked these and made confit de citrons, to be used in later dishes of chicken and couscous.

Carrot and lentil with Coriander Soup
Its still cold enough to warrant a warming soup, and here’s one to make you feel really toasty!
1 kilo Carrots
1 stick celery
I onion
Tops of 2 leeks, removing the tough outer leaves
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, roughly ground in a pestle and mortar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teapson chilli flakes
1 cup of lentils (any type just make sure they don’t need pre soaking)
1.5 litres of stock, made with powdered bouillon
handful of fresh coriander
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons of oil or butter
Heat the oil or butter in a large pot and add the onions and garlic. Then add the chilli flakes ground coriander seeds, and the cumin powder. Stir this around until the onions are soft and the gentle aroma of the spices reach the nostrils of your loved one in the next room. Then add the rest of the vegetables and the lentils, stirring from time to time so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan, over a gentle flame for ten minutes or until they are soft. Lastly add the stock made with boiling water and add salt and pepper, to taste. Remember that some of the stocks have quite a lot of salt in them, so maybe taste before you salt. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are cooked. Then liquidise and add the chopped fresh coriander and serve.
This makes quite a large amount of soup and I often freeze some for a later day. You could also halve the quantities.

Carrot and Orange salad
This is very yummy and will last a couple of days. Its best made a few hours before you want to eat it so the juices of the carrots mix with the orange juice.
500g/ carrots, peeled and coarsely gratedk
1 oranged, unsprayed, juice and zest
1/2 juice of lemon
2 tbsp Moroccan Argon Oil, Olive Oil is fine if you don’t have any
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp poppy or mustard seeds, toasted in a frying pan until the pop
1 tsp. Mustard
Chopped fresh coriander or parsley
Chopped endive (optional)
Grate the carrots and the orange peel.
Stir the mustard into the orange and lemon juice. Add the oil, salt and pepper and whisk together and pour over the carrots. Add the poppy seeds (I sometimes use mustard seeds for a stronger sharper flavour), the endive, if using, and chopped coriander. Serve!

Confit de Citron
Ok this one is for my L.A. friends with lemon trees – if you’re stealing them from your neighbour, make sure you don’t get caught or make extra as a peace offering
As many lemons as you can fit into a jar (use a large jar)
Rock salt.
First cut off the stems, then cut the lemons vertically, without cutting all the way through. Then cut from the other side, stopping before you get to the end. Then fill each cut with a tablespoon of salt, or as much as you can cram in, then put it in the jar. When you have filled the jar, shake it and put the lid on. The salt will extract the juice from the lemons. And after a day or two of turning the jar, top up with water and leave with the lid on. They will be ready to use in about 3 weeks.