Denmark, Food and Drink

289 – Notes from Copenhagen #4: Tuborg Lager

I’ve been in Copenhagen for 6 weeks now and it’s rained for half of them. The barkeeper in the pub down the road told me on Thursday night that it’s been the worst summer for 38 years.

‘It’s not normally like this,’ he said pouring me another pint of Tuborg.

The day after was glorious but I didn’t notice it. Laid up on the sofa all day with the worst hangover for years. A quick calculation from the money I didn’t have in my pocket gave me a total of 9 pints. Elizabeth grinned at me from the armchair egg and bacon butty in hand as I lay there groaning like an old man. Managing to sip my cup of tea without having to rush to the bathroom.

I’d so far resisted the bowl. My prized capacity for alcohol wasn’t going to be beaten by some dodgy Danish beer. Which was of course the reason I felt so wretched. And not the fact that I can’t take my beer any more.

I’ve suffered some cruel hangovers in my time. Hard, grinding ones that seem to hang around for days like the smell of bacon fat or burnt toast. I haven’t had one of those for years. Partly because I don’t drink as much. But this laid me low. Like a man who’s suddenly contracted a terrible illness and has days, if hours, to live. Melodrama being one of the traits of drinking too much.

I was actually on call to work as a cycle courier, but luckily there were no orders because half of Copenhagen is on holiday. August 1st is when things spark back into action here. This was good fortune as while I’ve gone to work in the past with the most frightful of hangovers, I didn’t fancy charging round the city with a thundering headache barely able to keep the contents of my stomach down on what was a really hot day. If you know what I mean.

Today is cold and raining again as predicted by Stig, the barkeeper on Thursday night.

‘If you’ve got anything planned for the weekend, see it tomorrow,’ he advised.

I said I would make full use of the glorious weather. Then he poured me another pint. Although in truth I did make it to the sea for a swim yesterday in a desperate attempt to kill my aching head.

I like Copenhagen. Swimming in the harbour is one reason. But there are many. It’s phenomenally relaxed, it’s not as expensive as people always say (4-5 quid a pint), it’s friendly, and there’s loads to see. Plus you can cycle everywhere. It’s quite easy to get a job, people speak English (or French/German) and nobody really gives a shit.

It’s perfectly normal to see people of all ages and social backgrounds wandering round the streets or the parks with a can of beer in their hand. It’s also normal to see people picking them up off the floor and putting them in plastic bags.

This is called Pant collecting. Pant in danish meaning deposit (or mortgage.) as all bottles and cans here (except wine bottles and a few others) have a value depending on their size. Each bottle or can is labelled according with either Pant A, B or C.

When you get enough, you take them to the machines in the supermarkets where you get a ticket for the value you collected. With this you can buy more beer (or food).

It’s  a good system as it discourages littering. And if people do, there’s always people (like me) who’ll pick it up.

It’s become an obsession of the city. Everybody does it. Especially in the parks and open areas. The Fælledparken near here is a goldmine. After the recent Guns & Roses concert we collected almost 120 kroners worth of Pant. A similar amount after a football match. Even on a nice summer’s evening (rare) there’s enough for a meal and a few beers.

But you’ve got to be on the ball. If you don’t get there on time, there’s not a can or bottle in sight. The entire park scavenged by anybody with a bike or a bin bag. The entire park spotless within hours. It’s amazing. As though the park has a built-in self cleaning function. Press the PANT button and within hours the park is as clean as when it was built.

It’s funny because of all the things to do in Copenhagen, this is one of the things I enjoy doing most. You wouldn’t think it would you? But along with my bicycle courier wage, I’ve been able to scrape together enough to live on. So much in fact that I can afford to go and drink 9 pints of Tuborg on a Thursday night.

(*My absurd guidebook to France, A Man in France, is currently free to download until 31st July – click here)

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Denmark, Food and Drink, Jobs, Sport

288 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

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Denmark, Food and Drink, Jobs, Places

287 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier

My job in the Indian takeaway lasted precisely 25 minutes. Beating my other record for staying in a job by a full 20. Forty-five minutes being the time I did a job in Exeter cleaning commodes and soiled bed covers for Devon County Council’s geriatric department.

That turned out to be a clerical error on the part of the temping agency I was working for. I was meant to be doing data entry but some admin joker thought that if somebody can do one shit job, they can do another…(Great humour!)

I walked out of that job and didn’t say goodbye. This one though was more mutual. The takeaway owner letting me go 25 minutes into my shift, citing that I was too qualified and would probably leave anyway. Which was true. I had planned to leave. Just not so soon. But after almost half-an-hour of standing by a silent telephone looking at faded photos of India on the wall, I was mightily relieved when he stepped in and fired me.

Sauntering back up Osterbrogade that slices east and west Copenhagen in two, I started thinking about what I would do now, seeing as my only job so far had come to an abrupt end. My plan on coming to Copenhagen was to find a job as quickly as possible. Something interesting, something different. Three weeks down and I was still cessantibus. Which according to the Copenhagen jobcentre is latin for unemployed. (For the record unemployed in Danish is arbejdsløs.)

As fate would have it though, as I turned onto Nordre Frihavnsgade – a super cool street lined with diners, bagel bars, cycle shops, vegan takeaways and yoga rooms – I noticed a cycle courier piling burgers into a large square pink styrofoam box the size of a WW2 field radio.

‘That’s my job,’ I said to myself noting the company.

A week later, I had the job complete with my own pink box which has enough space for a family sized buffet, wine, beer and ice.

I don’t look very happy in the photo but that’s because it was my first shift. I was phenomenally nervous owing to the fact that my knowledge of Copenhagen was limited to the bakery, supermarket and beer shop near where I live. I had a smartphone with Google maps on it, but that turned out to be as useful as a chessboard without any pieces.

Half an hour into my first trip my phone started beeping. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Another order!’

Only to discover moments later that it was my battery, which promptly died, sending me into a spasm of pure panic. Without a phone, it was impossible to do the job. I was as good as lost. And would have had more chance finding my destination blind drunk using that good oldfashioned paralytic global positioning system employed by millions of drunks daily in their fight to get home.

With a steaming pizza on my back I rushed home, plugged my phone into my laptop and threw the whole ensemble in my box hoping I had enough power to last me until eight o’clock. Luckily, it did. And the next day I bought a huge 14 megawatt phone recharger powerpack. Just in case.

In the past I imagined bicycle couriering to be a glamourous affair. Whizzing round the city like some modern day beat poet. Crazy, aloof, cool. A rebel for the cause. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re just another jerk on a bike delivering pizza. Or bagels, or Indian, or Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Russian, or Greek, or Turkish. Or any other food type from around the world. Even Danish, believe it or not.

I got through my first week and enjoyed it immensely despite the occasional meltdown from an overload of orders. My legs are like iron, my brain like a walking atlas of Copenhagen and I know every takeaway in town. Except the ones where the signs and street numbers have been obliterated by years of heavy rain and violent winds. Copenhagen in case you haven’t been, has the climate of Newcastle.

Below is yesterday’s delivery route (click to enlarge)

And the day before

It looks like the drunken meanderings of a man after 20 pints desperately trying to get home. And if I’d had this technology when I lived in Warsaw it may have been an accurate representation of a typical Friday night there. Rub out Copenhagen, write in Warsaw and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I generally work between 3.30pm and 8.30pm and receive my orders via my phone. There’s a line in The Bourne Identity film where the hitman played by Clive Owen tells the hitman played by Matt Damon: ‘We always work alone.’ This sums cycle couriering up for me.

  • We never see who gives the orders.
  • We never see another cycle courier.
  • We only ever see the target when they open the door.
  • There’s no boss breathing down our neck wafting some hideous aftershave or perfume over us.
  • No colleagues discussing my performance in front of the cleaning staff.
  • No gossip.
  • No boring chitchat.
  • No small talk.
  • No speaking.
  • No office parties.
  • No photocopiers.
  • Just me and the road. (And the 3/4 million people who live here. But I can deal with them because they’re normally just a blur in my side vision.)

In short, it’s the perfect job for me…Almost.

The cycle culture in Copenhagen is great from an ecological standpoint – less cars, less pollution, less noise. On the other hand it’s a nightmare for a cycle courier. This might sound odd – almost demented coming from someone who rides bikes around the city all day. But it’s true. Ask any taxi, bus or delivery driver on the planet what would make their job better and they’d reply, almost unanimously, ‘Get rid of all the commuters, day trippers and joy riders!!’

Cycle lanes are a good idea for sure, but like roads, the more you have, the more they are used. To the point when they become clogged. Copenhagen is famous for lots of things. Jazz, opera, fish. It’s also famous for cycle jams. Lots of them.

The key to a successful cycle courier career is speed. The more orders, the more money you make. As a result you’ve got to move fast. Which means avoiding clogged up cycle lanes. Just like you might avoid the M1 or M25 at rush hour. Choose your route. Know the city. Be cool. Don’t get killed.

(to be continued…)

For more Blogley in Copenhagen, see Notes from Copenhagen #1

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Food and Drink, The French

283 – How To Tap Walnut Trees to Make Syrup

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I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.

The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.

1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.

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2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!

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3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.

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4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.

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5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.

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6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.

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7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.

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8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!

9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.

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10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.

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11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.

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OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!

12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.

 

For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/

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Blogley, Food and Drink, The French, Writing and Books

282 – 99 Reasons Not To Buy This Book!

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My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:

“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”

“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”

“As informative as a piece of wood”

“As boring as Sartre”

“Blander than French coffee.”

“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”

To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.

  1. It’s factually inaccurate.
  2. It’s not really a guidebook at all.
  3. Most places I’ve mentioned, don’t actually exist.
  4. I wrote most of it on the toilet.
  5. It goes off on tangents and never comes back.
  6. It’s not really about France anyway, it’s about me.
  7. It’s years out of date.
  8. Prices are still in Francs.
  9. Half of the characters are animals.
  10. The other half are dead.
  11. There’s no violence in it.
  12. Definitely no sex.
  13. There’s no famous people (except me).
  14. There’s no happy ending.
  15. There are no free apps.
  16. Or video games.
  17. Or maps.
  18. Or photos
  19. Or newsletters.
  20. Or special offers.
  21. Or dedicated fan sites.
  22. Or anything else much of interest.
  23. Roman Aqueducts are featured a lot.
  24. There’s too many references to baguettes.
  25. And crap coffee.
  26. Mosquitoes.
  27. Flies.
  28. And cheap lager.
  29. There’s no plot.
  30. No dialogue.
  31. Very little action.
  32. No direction.
  33. Certainly no heroes.
  34. Paris isn’t even in it.
  35. Nor is anywhere else.
  36. It’s absurd.
  37. Obscure.
  38. Ridiculous.
  39. And stupid.
  40. And that’s not even 99 reasons, which says it all. Rubbish!

However, if you still want a copy,  it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.

So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.

(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Sport, The French

276 – Back in Auty

Auty, Tarn-et-Garonne, France

GPS coordinates: Middle of Nowhere
Altitude: 219 metres
Population: 80
Amenities: Café (open Wednesdays 15.30 – 18.30), Church (Sundays)

 

I’m back. Looking after a 17th century chateau over the winter plus a Tonkinese cat called Pookie. His real name is Ventura, but we call him Pookie. Although in truth you could call him Shitface and he wouldn’t kick up much of a fuss.

Like wall hangings, Pookie is just there. Like a sponge. Soaking up the bird noises and the odd car horn from the village, or me speaking to myself. Then reprocessing it into whatever nightmarish dreams cats have. Waking up to the discovery there’s no food in his bowl. Or that his balls have been cut off. (Sorry old chap, had to be done. Village isn’t big enough for more than two cats.)

Whatever he dreams of they generally last between 12 and 15 hours depending on how hungry he is. Or how wet it is outside. At the moment the entire village is shrouded in a thick fog accompanied by light drizzle, so he’s fast asleep in the spare room on a swirl of old duvet covers he uses for a bed.

It’s good to be back in the peace and quiet of Auty though, even if it hasn’t stopped raining since last Friday. And to think I left England to escape the weather. On Sunday I went cycling with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo Club who I wrote about in Blogley 253 and 255 – The Caussade CycloClub and The Caussade Cycloclub’s Road to Hell.

I’m now officially a member the French Cycle Federation. I even got a card that gives me medical assistance and/or funeral arrangements (true) if I tumble off on one of their harebrained descents down into the Aveyron gorge. Being a member though doesn’t guarantee decent weather.

Last Sunday’s cycle was the worst weather I’ve ever cycled in. Slashing rain, hail, thunder, lightning, fog, zero visibility – weather fit for zombies and members of the Caussade Cycloclub. So awful that we cut the ride short by 50 kms. Managing only 55 out of the planned 105.

I was so wet and cold when I got back home that I thought about diving into the outdoor swimming pool just to warm up.  Instead I lit a fire using the wood from the violent storms that felled half the trees on the estate last year. A woodpile the size of a house, all neatly cut and polished by the tree surgeons who worked all summer to clear the debris.

I’m hoping for a very cold winter. A strange thing to wish for, but one that might save me, Elizabeth and Pookie from being roasted alive like slices of pork belly while trying to burn up all the wood by springtime.

Talking of pork belly. That’s what I ate last night (oh and the night before, and the night…). It’s one of the things I’ve been looking forward to. Fresh from the local butcher, slow cooked and served with braised red cabbage, Swiss chard soaked in pig fat, all washed down with a few litres of the bowel-clenching Ganape I wrote about in my last post. The perfect tonic to a dreary French night.

Talking of long nights. While I’m here I’m going to be working on another selection of short stories.

*Cue. Massive sigh*

My current one (The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd – TSOMT. *Currently available for 99p in November from Blogley Books*) has sold so well that I’m working on another one called The Seven Lives of Jed Geller.

*Cue. “The Seven What? Really????”*

This one will feature more in-depth detailed stories rather than the long-short, stop-start nature of TSOMT, which left the reader (or so I’m told) with the feeling that they’d wandered into a funfair where all the carriages on the rides felt like they were about to fly off into space at any moment. The reader never quite sure where the story was going or how it would end. Which I think is quite positive.

My new book will be more ordered. The stories longer and more boring. I’m writing one now about an anti-salesman. A man who rejects all known marketing theory by promoting his products like they were mere turds on the side of the road. Negative-Spin he calls it.

The new book will be very arduous and very difficult to read. Full of side issues, tangents and dense analyses of post-Brexit Britain and the collapse of civilisation. A real pageturner. An under-the-coffee-table borathon that a man in solitary confinement would pass over in favour of The Bible.

I’m joking. The Bible’s a real good read. But the The Seven Lives of Jed Geller (or TSLJG) will be better. A real rollercoaster. A fairground freak show featuring the whole gamut of morons, assholes, losers, drunks, failed musicians and writers I’ve ever met. If I’ve met you, you’re in it.

Watch this space.

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Food and Drink, People, Places

271 – Blogley in Italy

pexels-photoWaking up at Kokopelli Camping this morning was like waking up in a dream I’d forgotten existed. A dream where there’s no falling off cliffs or into holes, or being mown down by out-of-control lorries. A dream that starts slowly, gently gathers pace, meanders a bit through soft clouds and chocolate eclairs, then without any sudden death or injury, quietly finishes. No horror, blood, or pain. A seamless shift between sleep and reality where the reality is better than the dream. What most people call a holiday.

I arrived last night after an evening spent with the locals in the town hall of Serramonacesca eating pasta and quaffing wine at an event organised in aid of the recent earthquake. I hadn’t expected it in the slightest, I’d expected to spend a quiet evening with my friends nibbling on water biscuits and pecorino cheese.

Instead I was thrust into the madness of mountain village life, sitting on long benches chatting with local farmers trying to remember the Italian I’d learnt from my phrasebook. On the stage a local diva sang some opera, then some karaoke, then someone else told a story in a dialect that sounded like a cross between Russian and Chinese. Soon after a DJ started banging out Italian techno as I struggled on with my Italian, while men I’d never seen or met before brought me more wine.

It was a great baptism into Italian rural life, but it was also nice to go to bed and even better to wake up to mountain views, olive groves, fresh coffee, an outdoor kitchen, plus a couple of very small kittens clawing at my foot.

I’m here with Elizabeth to look after a campsite for six weeks for some friends while they holiday in Sardinia. Tucked below the mountainous Majella National Park and a couple of kilometres from the village of Serramonacesca, Kokopelli offers carefree camping with magnificent views of the raw countryside where bears and wolves still roam. It sounds like I’m writing their holiday brochure. I’m not, I’m just writing what I see. As I mentioned in my last post – write what you know.

What I know is that apart from a day in Venice years ago, this is my first time in Italy. And after hauling bags filled with lead weights round the Dordogne all summer, it’s a very welcome change. No more driving round the Perigord with a van full of indestructible coffin-shaped Samsonite suitcases big enough for the owners to be buried in. No more violent arguments with irate hoteliers. No more pretending to be polite when really I’m fuming beneath a painted-on smile. As the photographer Justin P Brown said to me after he’d moved to Barcelona after twelve smog-filled years in London, ‘This is paradise.’

After being shown the ropes of how the campsite works by my friends and waving them off to Sardinia in their Landrover, I was left to my own devices.

‘Now what do I do?’ I thought. As normal a million things rushed into my head, not wanting to waste a single minute of my time here. I wanted to do everything all at once: cycle up the mountains, swim in the river, hike up to the hermitage, cook spaghetti, write a novel, eat wild boar, learn Italian.

Instead I did nothing except cook some eggs, drink coffee, look at some maps, have another coffee, stoke the fire, and gaze blankly out at the scenery remembering that I was actually on holiday. A working holiday true, but the holidays I like best. Work to be done, but at my own pace. Slow down. Breathe. Relax.

Later I thought about dragging the bike out to see what the hills were like, but the urge passed and I made another coffee. ‘I wonder how much coffee I can drink?’ I thought. Probably quite a lot.

Whenever I go to new places, they’re always totally different to what I imagined. I once went to County Kildare in Ireland for a week and had to give myself a real talking to after I returned. I thought Ireland would be like England: dreary suburbia interspersed with the odd pocket of beauty. It was nothing of the sort.

I remember going into a pub for the first time. Where are all the trinkets and bodhrans hanging from the ceiling? The Oscar Wilde quotes, the Guinness adverts, the wooden confession boxes? The thick curtains and low lit lighting? This wasn’t right. This was just a room with brightly painted yellow walls. The tables and chairs were chrome and the only trinkets were a fire poker and coal shovel next to the fireplace which was real and alight.

I wasn’t going to poke my finger through a wafer thin partition wall here to reveal the breeze brick walls of a shopping centre. Its foreignness was real, not contrived or made to feel like somewhere else, like a Red Lion pub on the Costa Del Sol, selling egg and chips and pints of Fosters under the gigantic sunlamp of the Spanish sun.

I ordered a pint of Guinness even though I hated the stuff – ‘tastes of soot’ I once told a friend. But what else was I going to drink on my first visit to Ireland. Budweiser? Probably, because that’s what everybody else was drinking. I was the only one drinking the fabled Black Stuff while the rest of the pub – full blooded Irishmen and women – sat around drinking American lager.

Last night in the town hall in Serramonacesca, I had another ‘Irish moment’, where once again everything I’d thought I knew about a country came crashing down on my thick English head. I didn’t imagine for a second that everybody would be prancing about in Gucci suits and Prada heels drinking campari and sodas, I’m not that stupid. However, I certainly didn’t imagine techno, opera and karaoke on the same night, served up with stodgy ragu on paper plates, all washed down with red wine sloshed out shakily from giant 10 litre flagons like it was floor cleaner.

Never second guess. That’s what I’ve learnt so far from my 42 years on this planet. Never think you know anything about anything until you’ve seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. Countries, cultures, traditions, customs, languages and food all need to be experienced at first hand before you can make any sort of judgement. Otherwise you end up making a tit of yourself. Like drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub in Ireland. Or asking for Spaghetti Bolognese in an Italian restaurant…

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Food and Drink, Places, The French

269 – Mangez, Buvez, Bougez

 

pizza_service_order_pizza_pizzaSo what’s happening? I haven’t written an entry for a while because in truth I haven’t been arsed. I did start writing one a few weeks ago about surviving the last three years on very little money. But it ended up being so self-righteous, clichéd and boring that I canned it. Smug, sanctimonious snippets like “I always have money, because I don’t buy anything” littered the page like the discarded scribblings of a Guardian journalist.

I have been writing though. Some stories based on the guests and hoteliers I’ve been working with this summer. Other people far more interesting than myself, especially the hotel managers who order their guests to go to bed at 10.30 sharp, forbid them from having aperitifs before mealtimes, lock them out of their hotels, scold them for arriving early, turn the air-conditioning off in 40 degree heat, refuse vegetarians coffee and dessert because they didn’t eat their fish and then charge them extra for bread. Hotel owners who make Basil Fawlty look inept at being rude.

And then there’s the guests.

“It’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too wet, too windy, the food’s too rich, too frothy, too meaty, can I have some chips, the bath’s too small (it’s not a bath, it’s a shower), why do we have to walk to the restaurant, where’s my luggage, why didn’t you answer my call, nobody speaks English (it’s France), the canoes are the wrong shape, the hills are too steep, the bicycles aren’t like the ones in England (they’re English), we paid a lot of money for this holiday (yeh, well you should have read the brochure first!), can we have a cup of tea (No! Fuck off back home).” And on and on.

I could write an entire series entitled Excess Baggage – a post-Brexit analysis of how Brits go out of their way to find something to complain about. Or failing that taking their angst out on each other in enormous rows.

Take the couple I saw fighting in their gigantic cinema-sized campervan a few weeks ago. A real set-to that was, thrashing about in their portable cottage, fists flying, noses bleeding, cupboards splintering. True, the thermometer was pushing nearly 40 degrees that day, and the empty 24-pack of high strength lager probably didn’t help, but for the group of campers looking on, it was great entertainment.

‘Nothing like a holiday to let off a bit of steam, eh?’ I said to the guy next to me who’d started taking bets on the winner.

And if there isn’t the excess mental baggage, there’s the excess actual baggage. The mass of suitcases, holdalls, rucksacks, vanity cases, trunks, handbags, wheelie bins, kitchen sinks folk insist on bringing. All for a week’s canoeing, walking or cycling. Trips up Everest require less stuff. The Moon Landings I bet needed less physical matter than the average holidaymaker these days.

I don’t understand it: it’s boiling hot, the night temperature rarely falls below 20 degrees, surely shorts and T-shirt is all you need. Why are you bringing dresses, suits, shoe boxes, jumpers, coats, walking boots, scarves, hats, jewellery cases? One guy even brought a kilt! And wore it. To a restaurant. In France. In summer. Can you believe that?

Luckily, there are exceptions. Some people do bring one bag each. A rarity I admit, and normally the same people who congratulate me on how much they’ve enjoyed their activity holiday. It’s a relief I can tell you.

Most people think an activity holiday is walking to the bar and back. Where in actual fact it consists of engaging the quadriceps muscles of both legs and placing them one in front of the other whereby the torso moves forward at a rate of knots comparable to the speed of the legs. I’m being mean, but I can’t emphasise how much some people fail to grasp this simple premise.

Mangez, Buvez, Bougez* always comes to mind when I’m taking calls during my breakfast from people stranded in the ‘Perigord Desert’ after 4 kilometres of walking and need picking up. (*Eat, drink, move. A slogan used by the French government to encourage people to exercise more and not fill up on sugary drinks and pizza.)

Talking of pizza, we’re off to Italy for six weeks at the end of September to look after a campsite somewhere near Pescara. I’m dead excited as well. As except for a day in Venice years and years ago (possibly the most tedious day I’ve ever had, following 100,000 other folk all armed with two thousand pound Nikon cameras round a ruined city taking pictures of monuments and statues covered in pigeons, was not my idea of fun), I’ve never been to Italy.

We’re off to a mountain village in the Majella National Park where they apparently still have bears and wolves. There are a couple of restaurants in the village, a butcher and a shop. I’m already learning Italian, so I think it’s going to be a month and a half of Mangez, Buvez, Bougez. Roll on October.

(Like this? Check out my short story collection The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd available @ Blogley Books here)

 

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Writing and Books

263 – The Curious Case of The Polish Vans

 

polish van

It all started two weeks ago looking out onto the D820 from my bedroom window. A dirty grey Luton van with Polish plates trundling into Souillac. The time was 1020. I know this because I noted it down. I was curious.

Over the following few days I saw more. Same type of van – Renault Master Luton with vinyl canvas body – different colour. Grey, Blue, or Black. Sometimes with a white cab, sometimes with a red cab. The sightings reminded me of Magnus Mills’ novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, which centres on a fleet of identical vans driving around for no apparent reason. I was noting them down for personal interest, maybe I’d write a book as well.

I guessed they weren’t going to Poland. I used to live there and get the coach from London Victoria to Warsaw and remembered how long it took. From the analysis of the times and dates I’d written down in my notebook, which wasn’t comprehensive as I don’t spend all day looking out of the window, it simply wasn’t feasible. Too many vans appearing and reappearing within the same 24 hour time period. Poland is 2000km away, even driving at 200km/h all the way without stopping once for food, water, fag or toilet wouldn’t do it. Nowhere near.

So where are they going? And what are they carrying? Some have refrigeration units on the cab, so perhaps vegetables or meat. But as some of the vans don’t have these, coupled with the fact that thick vinyl canvas doesn’t lend itself very well to temperature control when it’s 30 degrees outside, I’m thinking furniture.

A removal service? But they aren’t big enough. A one man van service, yes. But a whole fleet of small vans when you can just have one big one, no. How about wine? Pots and pans? Clothes? Electronics? Polish food supplies? Books?

In truth, the only thing I’ve come up with is fungus, for no other reason than Poles have a rich tradition in mushroom cultivation. Growing or collecting mushrooms – possibly truffles – somewhere south of here and then driving them up to sell in Paris.

I could be way off the mark, but without stopping and asking them, I’ve no way of knowing. There’s no logo or website on the side of the vans, or any inscription anywhere, not even a name. I’ve discounted the possibly of criminal involvement. For the simple reason that no criminal gang would risk driving a Polish registered van through rural France where even Mr and Mrs Essex Motorhome can get pulled over for having a faulty brake light.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s made life here quite interesting. Sometimes I hear Elizabeth cry from the kitchen ‘Polish Van!’

‘Write it down,’ I cry out from the bathroom stuck in the half French bath since Wednesday. ‘What’s the colour?’

It’s become a bit of a game, like train spotting, although more fun because I never know when or where they’re going to come from. Constructing a timetable from erratic, hit-and-miss sightings. Very similar to deciphering a SNCF rail timetable during a strike. “Your train should arrive today at 1030, but it won’t, it’ll arrive twelve hours later if you’re lucky. Or never. Thank you.”

There’s one now! (a Polish van not a train – that would be pushing it). Direction: Souillac, 1155, red cab, white awning. ‘Write it down! And can you help me out of the bath?’

They’re impossible to predict. I’ve never seen the same van in the same one hour time slot in the two weeks I’ve been watching them. My guess is that they move when the mushrooms are ready. ‘Go Go Go to Paris as quick as possible. Day or night.’ Like Tom Hanks in Castaway before he crashed and got marooned on a desert island for five years.

There is a definite way to solve this mystery though. Wait at the traffic lights in Souillac town centre one evening when they’re on red, climb in the back and hope I’ve got my maths right and don’t end up in Katowice 40 hours later stinking of rotting truffles. Or dead pigs.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. More likely served up in a high class Parisian restaurant as part of an orchid leaf salad.

‘I asked for Perigord diamond truffles, not ass of Englishman. Take him away at once, mince him and feed him to the dogs!’

I could ask them. Flag them down and ask in my best Polish what on earth they are doing because it’s driving me nuts.

‘Mind your own business, Englishman. We’ll do our jobs, you keep practising your canoeing skills, we’ve seen you capsize, very funny. You think you’re the ones watching us? Think again, idyot! Ha ha ha!’

…to be continued.

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Food and Drink, People, Sport, The French

256 – Amazing Coincidences and Incredible Lookalikes At The Caussade Monday Market

I was once told by a friend that beetroot makes your pee go pink. ‘Of course, it doesn’t,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been eating beetroots all my life and never once had pink pee. You must be ill.’

Turns out he wasn’t ill, just low acid stomach levels. But that’s totally unrelated to what I want to say. What I want to say is that the man at the Caussade Monday Market who sells me beetroots, is also one of the guys I cycle with every Sunday morning. And I didn’t even know it.

It was only this Sunday, as we passed through the village of Monclar-de-Quercy, that I realised who he was.

‘Oh fuck, it’s you,’ I cried out, nearly cycling into one of the four-foot deep drainage ditches at the side of the road. ‘The beetroot guy!’

‘Ah, oui,’ he exclaimed. ‘L’Anglais, the one who’s always fiddling around with his loose change while a thousand customers wait behind him.’

I laughed. ‘Yes, that’s me. Well, you know what they say, pennies make pounds.’

He hadn’t heard that one before. Probably because he was riding a 5000 euro Pinarello road bike, a bike that would take me a thousand years to buy with the one centime coins I find outside the bar in the village where I live.

I’ve got a pretty good memory for faces and situations – HD quality in fact – but on this occasion I could be forgiven for making a mistake.

At the Monday market everybody wears checked shirts, jeans, boots, hunting caps. On the Sunday morning bike ride everybody wears lycra, streamlined fibreglass helmets, shades, plus lots of snot running down the sides of their faces. It’s the same people, just in costume.

Jean-Paul is no longer the beetroot guy dressed in thick trousers, a wooly jumper and a sturdy coat. He’s Jean-Paul the time trial specialist dressed in luminous skintight lycra and an insect shaped helmet. 

He told me he thought the same. How was I to know that this gibbering imbecile of an englishman who picks coins out of his purse like they’re dead flies was the same guy riding beside me on a thirty year old gold bicycle dressed in a lycra jumpsuit?

‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ I told him. He agreed and we carried on.

The other curious thing about the Caussade Monday Market is that the other guy who sells beetroots looks exactly like my old guitar teacher from Nottingham, Gary Fraser Lewis. So much so that when I first saw him, I was tempted to ask him about that E minor 6th chord I’d always struggled with.

I kept my mouth shut and asked him what the small lightbulb shaped vegetable he had on sale next to the beetroots was.

‘Ah, rutabaga. Very good.’

I’d never heard of them.

‘Sauté au beurre. C’est délicieux,’ he recommended.

‘I’ll take some,’ I said putting five in my basket. ‘And these?’  I asked holding up a black vegetable that looked like a piece of burnt wood.

‘Ah, radis noir. Fantastique, avec du beurre,’ he said, throwing me a big smile into the bargain.

‘Incroyable,’ I said. Incredible. But not the radish. The resemblance to my old teacher in Nottingham was quite astonishing. He started telling me that rutabaga was eaten in WW1 as it’s nutritious and filling,  and it got me thinking that perhaps there was a war connection between the two men. Same grandfathers? Great uncles? Not impossible, surely?

Anyway, that night I took his advice and sauteed the rutabaga and served them with local pork belly and homemade applesauce. As well as red cabbage from Jean Paul the vegman/Tour de France time trial specialist.

‘Wow!’ me and Elizabeth said simultaneously after we’d finished licking our plates for the third time. ‘That was pretty incredible.’ Incroyable, in fact.

And it was. Possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. A meal full of coincidence and uncanny lookalikes. A meal I’ll never forget. Just like I never forget a face (most of the time).

caussade market

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Animals, Food and Drink, Places, The French

241 – God, Garlic, Christmas Turkeys and Dried Sausage at the Caussade Monday Market

The best part so far of being in Auty is the Monday morning market in nearby Caussade. A six kilometre drive takes me to this rural working town where they once made straw boaters (canotiers) for Europe’s dandies. Nobody wears them here any more, unless you’re on holiday from Kentucky, but Les Caussadaises do wear their berets with pride in this charming, if seemingly half demolished (in places) market town.

Like all French towns, the weekly market holds great significance for the people and the local economy. Caussade on a Monday morning is packed with people buying and selling live poultry, vegetables, meats, oils, cheese, wine, garlic, herbs, spices, furniture, bread, coffee, books, pots, pans. There’s even a Jehovah’s Witness stand parked rather incongruously next to the saucisson sec stall. No prizes for guessing which is busiest…

While there are ample supermarkets in the town (there are four for a population of only 7000), most people come here on a Monday to buy their groceries. And at around ten o’clock the town is so packed you’ve got to be careful not to get trampled to death by the hordes heading for the discount garlic stand.

This is my favourite stall: an old lady standing in front of a table of garlic stalks and bulbs so tightly tied together that they look like emaciated prisoners-of-war awaiting the firing squad. All labelled up in 5, 3, 2 or 1 Euro bundles depending on the size of the bunch. I normally take the two Euro one (about 12 bulbs) and say something to her about the damp weather and how garlic is good for the bones. She looks at me blankly and says it’s nice in a casserole as well.

Next I head to the cheese van up the road to order whatever is cheapest. This week I walked away with a nice stash of Emmental, Cantal and Brie, all for a fiver. Next I go to the butcher, after that the veg man, then the egg lady, the wine lady, the salad boy, the sausage counter, the fruit guys, the bread stall, the herb kiosk, and finally Bar des Amis, a tiny bar that serves nothing but coffee and pastis.

There me and Elizabeth sit down to eat our pain au chocolat we buy from the bakery and plan what we’re going to cook for the week ahead with our day’s haul. It’s more work shopping at the market than at a supermarket, I understand that now. I have to queue and wait – not my strongest points – but I enjoy the company and the ritual, talking about the weather and the produce. It’s all very real as well and makes all the trendy farmer’s markets that spring up in expensive middle class areas in the UK look rather contrived and fake.

I now look forward to the market, when before I was a dyed in the wool supermarket boy. I still go to Lidl to buy things I can’t get there like washing up liquid and cheap beer, but I don’t enjoy it half as much as the market – if at all. I’m even plucking up enough courage to buy a live Turkey next week ready for Christmas. Put it in the woods in the château, feed it up a bit on all the walnuts that are lying around and then slaughter it in time for our Christmas feast. The whole meal from the stalls and tables of Caussade market. That would be something. I could even get a Jehovah’s Witness in to say a prayer…or not.

bar de amis

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Food and Drink, People, Photos, Places

235 – Blogley in Marrakech

This week I find myself in Marrakech teaching English to engineers at a phosphate mine 10kms north of the city. It’s hot. About 35 degrees, but it doesn’t seem to bother me too much. I’ve camped out in enough shitty English weather to appreciate searing heat, even if I have to work in it.

When I got back to my apartment at the end of my first day, there was a selection of dried fruit and nuts laid out for me that I wolfed down in seconds. This was despite eating a massive plate of salad, grilled lamb, steamed chicken, poached fish, gratin dauphinois and crepes for lunch.

My apartment has two floors, three bathrooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge, a courtyard, and 41 lights switches. Which is insane, and is like having a small hotel to myself. When the security guard showed me in on the first night I asked him who else I was sharing with. Thinking of course that I would be sharing with other students or teachers.

He looked at me. ‘It’s just for you, Sir?

‘But,’ I said pointing at the stone steps. ‘Where do the stairs go?’

‘That’s your lounge, kitchen and veranda.’

‘Oh, yes,’ I replied trying to look unimpressed as though I stayed in luxury Arabic villas every week.

He left smiling and I ventured upstairs stepping out onto the veranda area which was bigger than the flat I had in Lyon. I then wondered if they had got me mixed up with a company executive, the teachers’ quarters being in a ditch in the desert where the camels live. But clearly not. This was all mine.

However, I didn’t have time to admire my bedrooms, or lounge, or the ludicrously thick cotton bathrobe. It was nearly half past two in the morning and breakfast was at 7.30. Teaching started at 9 and I hadn’t prepared a thing. I showered, dived into bed, set the alarm and then dived out again five hours later shaking the clock.

‘Are you serious?’ I said to it. ‘Morning already? I’ve only just gone to bed.’

It was a tiring day, but nothing fifteen espressos couldn’t fix. And a swim afterwards in the pool was a nice reward for arguing with 15 Moroccan engineers for six hours over minuscule (and irrelevant in my view) elements of the English language. Back in my apartment I was looking forward to dinner.

The food at the residential teaching college in Wiltshire where I work is good, but this is a step up. It’s the top of the ladder, the bit where you reach the roof and are knocked to your death by a sudden gust of wind. It’s that good. Fine Moroccan lamb, beef, chicken, fish, salads, cakes, sweets, plus hot soup for breakfast.

Yes, hot soup for breakfast, when the temperature is already 27. Great idea. The same concept as drinking tea in hot weather and not cold drinks. The body starts cooling itself down when the soup hits your stomach, so when you go to work you’re feeling cool. And if you’re wearing beige chinos and light brown slip on shoes like me, very cool. In fact if I got lost in the desert, I would never be seen or found again. Just effortlessly blend into the scenery like a camel. Found four years later, the sun dried remains of an Englishman still holding a folder marked English for Mining Engineers.

The city of Marrakech itself is hard to comment on at this point. I had two hours free one evening and was driven there by one of the company chauffeurs and had exactly one hour to look around. I pelted it round the old Medina ignoring the snake charmers, spice sellers, tour guide pushers, watch makers, jewelry vendors, English Premiership replica kit sellers, and took in as much as I could. Then I waited by the main Mosque for the driver to pull up and drive me back to the compound. I’m leading an odd life at the moment, I admit.

Tomorrow I return to England. To Bath. Where I’m told it’s cloudy and rainy. Great.

blogley in marrakech

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Sport

218 – Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass suddenly looks possible.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the wine. Even though it’s never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until yesterday. When I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’ I’m already planning my first trip. Probably to a nearby vineyard. Camp out among the vines with my new companion.

It’s certainly made me think that in our world of endless technology and gadgets, where even books are becoming erased by computer screens, it’s so pleasing to know that I can still derive great pleasure from such a simple (and free) thing. So much so that I can’t stop looking at it.

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

‘If only everything was as simple as strapping an old wine box to a bike with an old bungi cord.’ I kept saying to myself yesterday evening.

Now I think about it. Maybe it is.

wine box

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Film, Food and Drink

216 – MockVert

If you read my last post, it was about not feeling guilty. Not being harangued by Mister Guilt every time I try and do something different or creative.

If you remember, ‘I was wasting my time writing a story no one would ever read.’ So I made a video of me writing it and posted it on the internet along with the blog.

So how did it go? Well, it made me feel pretty damn good actually. I felt proud and powerful. ‘Who gives a monkeys what I do,’ I thought. ‘If someone wants to laugh at me and say, “Well, you’re a rather silly fellow, Oggers,” then good for them. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with my life.’

So what’s a MockVert?

It’s an unofficial advertisement for a product featuring real life people.

So who invented it?

I did. Today in fact as I was standing in my kitchen making a coffee wondering how I would advertise the particular brand I was using.

Who’s in it?

Me. As later in the day, I thought what would happen if I actually filmed myself promoting a product – say a beer – and put it on the internet? How silly would that be?

Is it legal?

I don’t know. The only way to find out is to try. The Orville brothers didn’t invent the aeroplane by sitting on their fat American asses wondering what would happen if they glued a couple of long flat pieces of wood together and attached it to a motor.

What’s the product?

Export 33. It’s not my regular brand, but they’d run out at the shop. This was all they had.

Will I get sued?

I hope so.

Where can I see?

Here:

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Film, Food and Drink, Writing and Books

213 – Fish Pie and the Art of Writing

If I was asked what meal I’d eat before I died, I’d choose fish pie. I’d even offer to cook it, I like it that much.

I see making it as like writing a story or a book. Four or five strong characters – the fish. The peas as the bad guys. The béchamel sauce, the plot. The potato topping, the location. The grated parmesan and gruyere cheese (my personal choice), the twist. Baked in the oven for thirty minutes, it’s got the makings of a classic.

One of the reasons I like cooking this dish is the almost infinite combinations of fish you can use. Anything that lives in the sea is fair game in my book. So many strong contenders and characters.

And when you throw in all the differing variations of sauce, mashed potato and cheese, there’s literally a million ways your fish pie (or book) can end up. In fact, it’s safe to say that no two fish pies are the same. Just like a story.

The one I cooked last night wasn’t my best, I admit. Mainly because I was concentrating on filming it rather than thinking about my culinary journey.

Having all the ingredients on the table (good characters, strong plot, perfect setting, quirky twist) doesn’t necessarily make a great meal or a book. You need the passion. Your full attention. If you’re doing it half arsed then you’re going to bake a watery fishpie full of tasteless peas, tepid mashed potato, a bland filling, and a spongy topping with no twist in it whatsoever.

Writing is like fish pie. You can’t just throw it together and hope for the best. There’s no fluke in writing or cooking. If there was, everybody would be doing it. Not that anybody can’t. Far from it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Even I can do it…

(The video below features strong fish.)

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Food and Drink, People, The French

207 – Pool Progress II

I didn’t get fired. In fact, I got promoted. Hoisted up by my Speedos to the title of Pool Boy Extraordinaire – King of the Pool Boys.

‘C’est magnifique, Oggers,’ my boss said to me yesterday. ‘You’ll make a good Frenchman one day.’

‘In your dreams,’ I muttered under my breath as we took a weak tasteless coffee together on the veranda to toast my promotion.

It turned out that getting rid of the filthy fetid water from the filtration tank last week and replacing it with fresh tap water was the right thing to do. (See Blogley 206)

‘It’s incredible,’ he said. ‘I’d have never thought of that. You’re a genius.’

‘Well, you know,’ I replied smugly. ‘When you employ an Englishman, provided you feed him with enough bacon and eggs for breakfast, the job gets done.’

He smiled and seemed amused by the idea of feeding a man bacon and eggs to get him to work. Like putting petrol in a car to make it go.

‘The perplexing thing is,’ I continued, ‘that apart from the bacon, France has all the ingredients for a great English breakfast: tasty fresh eggs, meaty sausages, good fatty black pudding, creamy butter for frying the bread in. And yet you still insist on eating brioche and dry biscuits dipped in luke warm milky coffee.

‘Not that I’m complaining,’ I quickly added. ‘I love France.’

He slowly nodded. ‘Then you’ll be interested to find out what your next job is?’ he said smiling. A wide, drawn out smile that made the Cheshire Cat’s grin look like a halfarsed smirk.

I gulped. ‘What is it?’ I asked, feeling like a cigarette for the first time in years.

‘Ever been scuba diving?’

I said I had in the tropical waters of northern Australia. Lovely warm seas followed by a crate of Fosters and a bottle of vodka on the diving boat afterwards.

He looked confused but nodded all the same.

‘How about in the ice cold waters of Arcachon?’ he asked.

My eyes narrowed. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘The Pool,’ he said gesturing towards the freezing mass of water in front of us.

‘You’re shitting me!’ I said jumping out of my wicker chair. ‘I’m not cleaning the bottom of the swimming pool with a garden brush dressed in a wetsuit and snorkel. The water is 4 degrees for God’s sake, I measured it yesterday. I’d die. Especially after the kind of breakfasts I eat.’

The lines on his forehead that had been massaged and relaxed by our polite conversation suddenly creased up into a deep frown that looked like the four-day old croissants I eat on a Sunday when I’ve run out of lard.

‘Monsieur Oggers. King of the Pool Boys. I’m not sure you understand me,’ he said stroking a grey fluffy cat that had suddenly appeared on his lap. ‘Who said anything about a wetsuit,’ he stated and handed me a piece of paper before disappearing through a trap door in the veranda floor like all good Bond villains do.

pool boy3

(Artwork copyright 2015 © My French Boss. Courtesy of Le Louvre, Paris.)

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Food and Drink, Places, Writing and Books

200 – Blogley at 200

When I started this blog I thought it would stretch to twenty or so posts about my year in Lyon. Then I would return to the UK and forget about it. Consign it to the digital graveyard.

Three and a half years later and I’m still writing it. Twenty posts has ended up as two hundred. Two hundred posts on 21st century France with plenty of my ill-thought-out wisdom thrown in for good measure. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

186 – Buffalo Grill

On Friday morning I had an interview at a business park that looked like a disused moon base. A shipment of white tiles, mirrors and concrete dumped there at some point in the 1980s and then forgotten about. Left to grow and evolve into the bland assortment of office blocks and budget hotels that is now west Bordeaux. A post-industrial form of natural selection that would work well in a JG Ballard novel I suspect. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places, Seasons, The French

185 – Weather Update (revised), James Dean and Gauloises Cigarettes.

Sitting outside a café this morning sipping an espresso, I wished I still smoked. The figure of a James Dean look-a-like opposite me smoking a Gauloises, reading a book and sipping an early morning brandy almost got me rushing to the Tabac next door.

I resisted. My lungs were wheezing anyway from my first cold in years. The last thing I need was a fag. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Seasons

184 – Weather Update (Bordeaux)

‘I can’t believe it rains in Bordeaux.’

These were the words I said to the baker on Sunday morning as I handed him two Euros for my loaf of sourdough.

‘It rains more here than in England,’ he replied.

C’est pas possible!’ I said pointing my loaf at him like it was a snubnosed machine gun. ‘I was told the sun shines all year round here. Like in the Costa Del Sol.’

Par un idiot!’ He waved his arms fiercely in the air. ‘In winter it rains here like it rains grapes at harvest time.’ Continue reading

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Food and Drink, The French

179 – French Coffee

French Coffee

I’m about to destroy the myth about French coffee. But before I do, I’d like to make a statement.

I love France.  They do things better here than in a lot of countries, including my own. From campsites, to employment laws, to healthcare, to public transport, to food, to wine, to films, to beaches, to mountains. It’s a joy to live here and if I was French, I’d be proud of my country.’

Except for one thing. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

174 – Eurasie Asian Supermarket

I’ve been craving Thai curry ever since I left Lyon. Once I had it six nights in a row. Same recipe every night from Monday to Saturday just because I could. On Sunday I had fish to give my bowels a rest.

I don’t believe you can’t have the same dish everyday of the week. If I discover something new, I generally gorge on it until I’m sick or can’t stand the sight of it any longer. Whichever comes first.

By the time I left Lyon last July I could make a red Thai curry better than any Thai restaurant in the city could. I experimented on the farm in Queaux with ingredients I got from the local supermarket in Lussac. But the results were awful. The runoff from the compost heap tasted better. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, People, Places

172 – The Piano Man and Beer Tasting

Each morning I’m awoken by the old man next door playing his piano. It’s my morning wake-up call and I can truly say that there’s nothing as calming as Beethoven, Brahms or Bach first thing.

It doesn’t actually wake me up. More rolls me over in my deep slumber. Gently prods me and says, ‘Oggers, it’s morning. Time to get up.’

This has happened everyday since I’ve been here. Except today. Which is worrying on two counts. One he might be dead. And two I don’t have another alarm clock. I have a mobile phone but the ring tones are so incredibly nauseating and offensive that I’d rather miss the entire day than be woken up by some moronic synthesised version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

170 – Saint Émilion

Yesterday I bought the most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever bought. A Château Labatut Saint Émilion at €9.50. Three hundred percent more than I normally pay. But I had no choice. It was the cheapest in the shop. I was in Saint Émilion.

Famous Saint Émilion: a roadshow of geriatric Americans plugged into their tour guide headsets like they were life support machines. Tiptoeing down the steep cobbled paths cautious in the knowledge that one misplaced step could be their last. All desperate to drink a bottle of 1996 Clos de Menuts at €350 a bottle before they expire and their sons and daughters gobble up their cash to spend on Hummers, Botox and Dr. Pepper. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

169 – Bud Pint

Like most people I enjoy a beer at around six o’clock. And luckily that alcoholic alarm call of two hands to the vertical is as respected here in Bordeaux as anywhere else.

The best price I’ve found so far is €3 for a pint of Budwar at the Vintage Bar on Rue Saint-James. Which having lived in a variety of European cities over the years is as good as you’re going to get.

Although saying that there was a bizarre place in Salamanca I remember that dispensed litre bottles of Mahou beer from a vending machine in the corner for a couple of Euros. But looking back I’m not sure that was a bar. More a room glued onto the side of a student nightclub where people could sit on the floor, drink heavily and then pass out. Something like that anyway… Continue reading

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Food and Drink, People, Places

167 – Victor Hugo, Ice Creams, and Lyonnais Waiters

The Bordeaux tourist guide quotes Victor Hugo on its front page:

‘Take Versailles, mix it with Anvers. You have Bordeaux.’

I know nothing about either town but from what I’ve seen here there seems enough good cheer and sparkle to go round both of them with some to spare. Furnish Lyon with a bit perhaps? Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Writing and Books

153 – Writer’s Coffee and Cold Showers

For the past ten months I’ve been getting up early to write. To do this I’ve needed two things. Coffee and a cold shower.

I possess three stovetop Mokas as shown in the photo below.

3-Cup, 6-Cup, 12-Cup

Continue reading

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Food and Drink, People

126 – Chip Shops and Expats

With thousands of English expats living in this part of France, I’ve often thought that it would be a good idea to set up a chippy. So it was both pleasing and galling to see one yesterday as I drove through Confolens. I stopped the car and gazed blankly at it like I was a young boy watching the school bully take all the glory in a conker tournament with my prize-winning conker. That should be me I thought. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, The French

83 – Lunch in Annonay

I had great plans for the weekend. A skiing trip to Sept Laux on Saturday, followed by a walk through the Chartreuse on Sunday. Snow clad France and bright sunshine.

So it was a major disappointment that I found myself spewing my guts up on Saturday morning two hours before the bus left.

‘Thanks a lot,’ I congratulated my stomach after it had finished. ‘You really know how to pick your moments.’ Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

72 – Parents in Lyon

Where do you take your parents to eat on their first trip to Lyon? A city of 10,000 restaurants.

This was the dilemma I was facing leading up to their arrival last weekend. With the hotel and flights booked and paid for. It was up to me to find three good restaurants to cover each of their three nights in the city. If I ever needed to use the needle in a haystack analogy, it was now. Continue reading

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Food and Drink

70 – The New Taj Mahal

Hungry due to fatigue after my Saturday run, I felt the sudden, almost violent need for curry. A gigantic pile of stinking Madras laid like bitumen on a bed of brightly coloured pilau rice. Curry that’s been cooking in a pan for fifty years. The meat and onions so infused with chilli that if left for long enough, a terrifying creature might one day crawl out of the slime and take over the world. Continue reading

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Food and Drink

61 – Figs

After a cup of green tea in the Gadagne museum and a cake that tasted of chalk, I wandered up to the deserted Parc de Hauteur to pick figs. What would I have been doing on a Sunday afternoon ten years ago, apart from washing back post-party-pints in a dirty pub in East Nottingham? My mind is hazy of that period, but one thing is sure. There were no fig trees. Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

57 – Walnuts

My dinner on Sunday evening consisted of wild roasted walnuts and chestnuts accompanied by sautéed wild porcini mushrooms followed by wild fig, apple and quince pudding. Not a meal for a carnivore and not normally enough for me. But all of the above was provided by nature during my walk through le Bois de St. Clair last Sunday. Continue reading

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Food and Drink

56 – Tea

‘This is the best cup of tea you’ll ever drink,’ I told my host last Saturday night.

She looked at the coppery brown liquid in the delicate China cup with utter disgust. My eyes bored into her willing her on. She gripped the cup, brought it to her lips and nervously took a sip. Her eyes shut.

‘Mmm,’ she replied forcing the liquid down her throat. ‘Nice. A bit sweet. And we don’t normally add milk. And I use Earl Grey as a rule. Or mint.’ Continue reading

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Food and Drink

46 – World Food Fair

There was a factual error in my last post. It read that I was in Poland for Euro 2000. I wasn’t. I was in Nottingham watching the Belgium keeper let a shot roll through his legs. My great friend Stan contacted me last week as he couldn’t understand that if I was in Poland during the Euros, why wasn’t I with him in the Mexican Restaurant in Warsaw watching the same match. What! My brain’s exploding… Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places

26 – Chocolate Factory

For those clinically addicted to chocolate, look away now, for yesterday I was shown around the chocolate factory I have often mentioned. Never seen so much chocolate. Literally mountains of the stuff: thick, rich, oozing, bitter sweet sex magic.

It’s part of my job believe it or not. After all those years of delivering letters, waiting in bars, driving vans around, data entry, warehouse picking, number crunching, watching time disappear out of the window. I finally get to do something useful. Trusted. Continue reading

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Food and Drink

5 – Salad Pot

I was eating a ham salad in the staff room yesterday for lunch. Or so I thought. I buy these salad pots for lunch from Carrefour where they have, not just the three or four you can buy in Tesco or Sainsbury, but forty, maybe more. I’ve had prawn pasta salad, Surimi salad,  cous cous salad, beef salad, olive salad, turkey salad, coleslaw salad, and egg salad. Continue reading

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Food and Drink

3 – Cordon Bleu De Dinde

I have developed a serious addiction to Cordon Bleu De Dinde. A highly processed turkey escalope filled with reformed ham and undisclosed generic cheese. It’s basically a French Chicken Kiev – but flatter. I’m not a fan of this kind of food, but for some strange reason, served with a can of lentils or green beans, they taste great and I’m struggling to give them up. Each day I wander out to buy food and each day I arrive back with a packet of the damn things. Although, I did try something different the other day that was like a pork pie but without the pie. I can’t remember what it was called but for some reason it didn’t agree with me, which is unusual as I eat virtually anything. I hope it wasn’t dog food. Continue reading

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