Mangez comme les Francais!

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One aspect of life the French have perfected is the art of dining out. And anyone who wishes to observe the French at this only needs to visit a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to understand how seriously mealtimes are treated. Every bistro, brasserie and café is packed.

But restaurants are not the sole venues for the French penchant for large, family gatherings to share food and company. Any park, aire, picnic area, seaside bench, canal side or car park will be packed with groups of friends or family sharing a meal.

And this Sunday meal will not be some hastily wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and bottle of coke. Oh no. This will be a proper full-on, sit-at-a-table, cloth, knife and fork, wine and glasses, side salad, napkins, several courses kind of meal. During a cycle ride from Jard sur Mer to La Tranche sur Mer we passed a large family party seated at two tables [one for adults, one for children] made up of all manner of picnic tables. Everyone had a seat and a laid-up place-and all under the trees in the woods by the beach.

So how, then did the French acquire their reputation for sylph-like, uber-cool, modelly bodies? It is my theory that they [the women, especially] chain-smoked their way to skeletal skinny-ness. In any case the same cannot be said these days, for the French are no longer slender wraiths like Coco Chanel and Francoise Hardy but have become as chubby as every other nation.

Their haughty, sniffy attitudes to cuisine have taken a slight tumble, too since they embraced MacDonalds and took to fast food. Yes-you’d still be hard-pushed to find a better cooked steak than in France, but along every street there is a pizza joint, a burger bar, a kebab shop, ice creams galore and the inevitable chi-chis, galettes, crepes and doughnuts.
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And what is more-the French are not averse to strolling along with a bag of chi-chis [for the uninitiated these are strips of fried dough rolled in sugar-sometimes dipped in melted chocolate] munching as they go.

Pockets of resistance do exist, though. A mayor on Isle d’Oleron, Gregory Gendre is fighting to keep MacDonalds off the island [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/24/choose-a-side-fight-keep-france-ile-doleron-mcdonalds-free ]

Most days we endeavour to choose and buy fresh produce and prepare meals in the van, [see last week’s post for the shopping experience]. We like to make the most of such delicious items as the huge, luscious tomatoes, sweet, juicy melons, smooth, creamy cheeses and salty Toulouse sausages, sometimes using the deli counter to buy slices of thick quiche or pork cutlets.

But when in France it would be sacrilege not to dine out on occasion so every few days we do. I indulge in my very favourite French menu: oysters/steak/crème brulee, and very delicious it almost always is.

 

 

 

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Hungarian Calamity [Part 1]

Budapest. Full of Eastern promise; the streets lined with ornate statuary, outrageously opulent architecture from myriad eras and cultures. Onion-topped, gilded, tiled, carved, stuccoed and frescoed to within an inch of its life. Every corner housing a kebab shop yet room for a ‘Tesco Express’.

This is grandness on the top of the scale, except that the opulence falls short at the campsite gates, where a ‘refurbishment’ [something we’ve seen a lot of, this trip] meant porta-cabin showers and no functioning washing machine. The women’s showers, complete with flimsy curtains opened on to a car park, offering no privacy to those groping for a towel. Ho hum-

After some deliberating we navigated by Metro to the centre of the city, where ‘hop on hop off’ awaited, touristy but acceptable to anyone who has a great deal to see and not much time to see it.

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Budapest is made up from two cities-‘Buda’ on one side of the Danube and ‘Pest’ on the other. ‘Buda’ houses the opulent palace and the castle, ‘Pest’ accommodates the glitzy shopping streets, the cathedrals, the buzzing restaurants and cafes and the outrageous parliament building, like a fanciful wedding cake on speed.

After an afternoon of sightseeing, hopping on and off, we were left waiting for the last bus up at the area of Heroes’ Square, where there is a zoo and the old Thermal Baths-an amazing sight in themselves, both the outside and the interior.

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We’d only nibbled the edge of Budapest’s sights, nevertheless as we relaxed on the top deck of the bus [relieved to have caught it] we felt ready to move on. Palaces, castles, monuments and statues are delightful but there are only so many iconic structures anyone can cope with in one visit.

Since Budapest is choc-full of Turkish-style cafes and restaurants we opted for a self-service kebab house, where a plethora of delicious looking concoctions lay behind the counter and judging by the popularity of the place it was a good decision.

One leisurely beer later we made our way back.

Next day, with grocery shopping in mind we set off towards the ‘bend in the Danube’, stopping off at an ‘Auchan’ supermarket [of which Hungary has many] to stock up. Once we’d swung out of the car park and located the correct road an ominous ‘thump’ became audible, seeming to emanate from the passenger side wheel arch. Horrors!

‘It’s the road surface’ bluffed Husband [more confident than he felt, I assumed] and ‘No’ from me [not confident]. Having managed to secure a safe place to pull in we conducted a brief examination which revealed…nothing. The noise persisted, prompting us to find yet another safe place to stop-a car park at the next ‘Auchan’ supermarket [as I said, there are many].

I struck out to ascertain our whereabouts before phoning the roadside rescue arm of our insurance, then spoke at length with ‘Adam’ who dithered with a blithe lack of concern whilst scrutinising Google maps to search for us. I scrambled out of the van to provide him with a list of the stores surrounding us: H&M, Bauhaus, Auchan… ‘Is there a cinema complex?’ he interjected. I sighed. ‘There are no leisure facilities, Adam. It’s a shopping centre’. He deliberated some more while I cast around. ‘There’s a MacDonalds’ I told him. ‘Bingo!’ he said. ‘I’ve got it!’

To be continued…

 

 

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken

                Fast food is too cheap. It is also too easy to obtain and too gratifying. It creates weight gain, litters the streets with non bio-degradable cartons and contributes to health problems.

                When you walk past a ‘Macdonalds’, a ‘Pizza Express’ or a ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’, how often is it unoccupied? The abundance of food takeaway outlets in any shopping street is testament to how popular they are. Not only does the country need to raise revenue to address the debt left by the bankers [who have not been asked to make recompense-but that is a different issue], but it needs to reduce the burden on the National Health Service. So why isn’t there a substantial tax on fast food?

                If fast food were taxed so that prices were in line with average restaurant prices, the revenue could be used in any number of ways. It could, for instance be used to subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables; or it could supplement the support we currently provide to developing countries, where finding enough to eat is their problem, not overeating!

                It may be a generational thing, but I’m not tempted by Macdonalds or Burger King. I did try a ‘Big Mac’ once or twice, but the experience was akin to chewing on a piece of lumpy rubber sandwiched between two bath sponges, accompanied by a bag of nasty, salty, fatty, greasy little sticks. I tried the ‘root beer’ –a strange, straw coloured liquid tasting vaguely of chemicals. We have been lured into Macdonalds on occasions when travelling by their claims of free internet access. We would only need to purchase a coffee to use the facility. Sadly, though, the access is rarely available. It has usually ‘crashed’ or the signal is too weak to get an email or anything else. The coffee, to be fair, is palatable.

                Similarly, I tend not to choose pizza when dining out. What an incredible profit there must be on these large circles of stodge and fat, for there to be so many pizza outlets and takeaways! It must be the easiest, cheapest way to make a buck in the food world! A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I thought I’d give pizza making a go. I’d made versions of pizzas with children before, but using bread mixes, grated cheddar and such items as might be transfigured into ‘faces’ and so on. This time I was going to make proper, grown up pizzas with mozzarella et al. I used a BBC recipe. Reader-it was easy. Even the bases, formed from a yeasty dough mix, were simple.

                And what about the famous Colonel’s chicken? The advertising alone is enough to induce a grimace. There is nothing recognisably ‘chicken’ about the images, which portray blobby orange lumps protruding from bags or boxes and accompanied by the ubiquitous, greasy, stick-like ‘fries’.

                I believe if apples were to be individually encased in gaudy packaging that also included a plastic action figure toy they would become objects of desire to children. But shouldn’t kids be wanting to eat because they are hungry and because the food they are offered is delicious?

OK. Rant over. Blogging makes me hungry. I’m off to see what’s in the fridge…

The Great Land Grab

                That waterside properties have become so popular is surprising, when you take all the floods into account. You would think people would be seeking homes on top of mountains by now.

                I don’t know when, exactly, a home with a view over water became an object of desire but when we bought our sea front house seventeen years ago its proximity to the sea was not mentioned in the advert at all. I first spotted a black and white picture of part of it in the local property rag, a blurred shot of the front door and surrounding brickwork, looking like a house on an [admittedly well kept] council estate. It was not until we made a trip to view the exterior that we realised only a road and a zig-zag cliff path separated it from the beach.

                Since then we have seen a gradual but accelerating rebuilding of the properties along our road, every family home that is demolished being replaced by an apartment block, the plans endorsed by a council eager to meet the government’s targets for new homes, as well as satisfy the clamorous desire for living by some water. There is nothing wrong with apartments. In most heavily populated parts of the world they have become the solution to housing. Almost everyone living in Hong Kong has a lovely view of Victoria Harbour, albeit sandwiched in a flat somewhere within a forty story plus block.

                The UK is not short of homes. There are many empty houses. They are in places like Stoke on Trent, where last August there were 5,000 empty ones. Terraced hovels can be bought for £1 provided certain conditions are met, but don’t get romantic ideas of stupendous views or chocolate box cottages because you have to renovate them, live there for five years and find some kind of employment in order to get a door on to the street and maybe a back yard. I’d have settled for that for a first home, though.

                So as more of us want to squeeze into any, tiny gap by a river, lake, harbour or beach, less of us want to take up residence in a dilapidated back-to-back terrace in a rundown northern industrial zone.

                There are rumours that here, along the seafront, the last remaining pub-hotels are due to be demolished, presumably to make way for still more apartment blocks; the revenue from such developments more than any publican, hotelier or hotel chain could make in their wildest dreams. Two more, nearby hostelries have been developed into flats in the last two years and another is ‘pending’. What’s next, as the availability of land in desirable areas becomes less? My vote goes to football pitches, and then to churches and churchyards, followed closely by betting shops, snooker halls, MacDonalds, Little Chefs and Pizza Huts…unless you feel differently?