Ginsters? Pah!

Food and drink wise there’s not much I miss having moved to France.

What I miss most are:

  • Mature Cheddar cheese
  • Samosas
  • Cornish pasties
  • Good bitter

Although you can buy Cheddar here – Wykes Farm and Seriously Strong mainly – it seems to be a tad less strong than back in the UK  and it comes at a price. I’ve found nothing produced in France so far that has the kick or bite of a good strong Cheddar, although Laguiole comes close, but is even pricier than imported Cheddar. However, we’ll be getting a few kilos of Cheddar when my brother-in-law comes over here in a few weeks’ time.

Samosas are a challenge. You can get them here, but they all seem to contain very fine glass noodles and they just don’t taste like samosas. Quite frankly they’re rubbish.

Finding a Cornish pasty here is a wild goose chase – and then some. It’s impossible. That includes your Ginsters crap – all well and good after a gig bought from the motorway services, but not a serious pasty.

Bitter? Well, you can buy bottled Spitfire, Speckled Hen and Bombardier, but it’s about £2.50 a bottle, so it’s an occasional treat. Most of the time I drink biere blonde – ’33’ and Kronenberg are often on offer and cheap too – which is a bit lagerish and sweet but chilled goes down remarkably well. Again, my brother-in-law can remedy the situation with a trip to Majestic Wine in the UK.

So, there’s not too much I can do with regard to Cheddar and bitter, but samosas and Cornish pasties are OK, because I can make them, and have.

Samosas are fine. I buy ‘brick’, a sort of filo pastry, and make my own chicken tikka filling. With brick they don’t need frying which cuts down on mess and although they’re not quite as authentic as I’d like, they taste very good and are a hundred times better than anything you can buy here. My comprehensive herb and spice supply is key.

Cornish pasties are a breeze. I buy ready made shortcrust pastry which is cheap and good and make a simple chunky filling of lean stewing steak, potato and onion seasoned with black pepper and sea salt. No swede – you can’t seem to get it here – and no carrot. I’ve modeled my pasties on some I had many years ago on holiday in Devon and my filling is as I remember it then.

I made a batch of pasties last night – four large ones – and here’s those very self-same bad boys as they looked straight after I whipped them out of the oven:

There you go – 4 very large pasties that cost about 5€ to make, which means the cost per pasty is about a quid – cheaper than a bought pasty and bigger and better too.

Having a better kitchen is going to make a big difference. For a year we had to use a stove that had seen better days with only three burners and an oven that tended to burn things very easily. Now we have a Stoves double oven with all the bells and whistles and cooking has just got a hell of a lot easier. We’ve also been able to unpack and store all our pots, pans and kitchen essentials so that we can have all the right things for various recipes.

This also means that Mrs Shark can get back to making goodies like muffins and other cakes.

Nom nom…

Tiny is as tiny do

Say ‘jazz guitar’ to people and I’m pretty sure that the mental picture they have will be of a chap in a sports coat and tie sitting down playing a big hollow-bodied guitar – possibly a Gibson – and with a tone which might best be described as ‘mellow’:

Of course, I’ve described a stereotype but there’s quite a few such players scattered throughout jazz guitar history and they’ve never interested me much. Yes, I can admire their skill but 5 minutes of someone like Jim Hall

is a bit like aural Ovaltine and gets me reaching for my pyjamas…

Fortunately there are many exceptions to this, and I’m not talking Les Paul toters blasting fusion through Marshalls, either…

…Ladies ‘n’ germs…

…meet…

…TINY!

Tiny Grimes was and still is unique amongst the ranks of jazz guitarists because he played an electric tenor guitar which has only four strings tuned DGBE like the top four strings of a standard 6-string guitar.

Tiny played rough and his swing style makes a great contrast to someone like his chief influence Charlie Christian, for example, who was less ‘polite’ than most jazz guitarists up to the mid 1960s but sounds positively reserved against Tiny.

Some people have described Grimes as one of the forefathers of rock ‘n’ roll and his 1946 recording ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Well, that’s a moot point but certainly he plays with a very raw tone – slightly overdriven – with plenty of Chuck Berry-style double stop bends and all this before Chuck gave up a life of crime and decided playing guitar was preferable to being a prison bitch.  In fact, Chuck was in prison whilst Grimes recorded ‘Tiny’s Boogie’.

With Tiny’s heyday in the 1940s there’s very limited video footage of him available, but there’s this which features a solo and also one of the strangest dancers you’ll ever see:

So,  check out Mr Grimes – as ever, Spotify is your friend…

And speaking of ‘tiny’, here’s some bonus guitar that has almost nothing in common with Tiny. It’s Uncle Frank with a particularly nasty solo on ‘City of Tiny Lites’. For some reason, Frank always seemed to be able to whip it out in a poisonous manner when playing a German show. The visuals are pretty fucked up but the playing is sublime:

 

Where am I?

Well, here’s a map of France, with the Pays de la Loire region marked on it:

The region comprises 4 departements – rather similar to UK counties – and we live in #53 which is called La Mayenne. Geographically speaking, it’s south of Normandy and east of Brittany.

We live in the far south-western corner of La Mayenne near to where it says Renaze on this map of La Mayenne:

In fact, we live pretty close to an axis of departmental boundaries meaning that a few minutes’ drive will take us into 3 other departments – Ille-et-Vilaine, Maine-et-Loire and Loire-Atlantique.

Culturally La Mayenne is a cross between Normandy and Brittany and gastronomically speaking, it has to be said, lacking any distinctive style although cider, apples, pork and cream figure largely.

Maurice, our nearest neighbour, laughed when I asked him what the local culinary specialities were…

The departement is largely rural and sparsely populated – which are two of the reasons we decided to go for a move here:

Not one of France’s more mountainous areas – it’s rather flat in fact – the countryside is very unspoilt and verdant and with very few real tourist attractions there are few tourists, which is yet another reason we decided to relocate here:

The hamlet or ‘lieu dit’ in which we live lies just outside a small village which has a church, a mairie, a village hall and…well, that’s it. The nearest shops are about 4km away in Pouance which is where we go for fresh bread, cigarettes and other essentials. In brief, if it’s outside shopping hours and you want something – tough shit.

We’re not the only ex-pats in the area.

With low property prices – another very good reason we moved – the departement attracts quite a few Dutch and British either as second home buyers or retirees. It’s possible to meet up with your compatriots on a very regular basis should you so desire, but we prefer to mix with the French as much as possible. All our neighbours seem really friendly and we reckon that they’re really glad that we’re here renovating a house that was in danger of lapsing into decay and becoming a real eyesore.

Immediately, we’re a bit south of our evening meal which will be pave de rumsteack, potatoes au gratin – made with some 6 month aged Comte – and green beans, all washed down with some rose from a box – 5 litres for 9 euros and quite, quite quaffable.

I’m in a good place!

Smacking my ditch up

This afternoon, I had a good play with this bad boy:

To clear a reasonable amount of undergrowth – and in a garden that’s been neglected for about 5 years we have a substantial amount of undergrowth! – you need a powerful tool and a petrol-driven brushcutter is just the job.

Imagine a strimmer on steroids with an optional cutting blade that’ll rip through brambles and ground elder like a hot samurai sword through butter and you might get some idea of its power.

Of course, safety is important with 40cc driving a spinning blade, so I donned my steel toecap trainer boots, welding gloves, helmet and visor. Putting on my harness – this thing is so heavy you need a harness to support its weight and you also need to steer it with two hands – I set about tidying up the ditch that runs between the communal road and our property boundary.

Power tools – especially petrol driven ones…

I love ’em!

Ginger bastards update

Time for some long overdue cat news…

Over the year in the house we rented whilst we looked for, bought and finally moved into our own property here in the Mayenne, our two Maine Coon cats settled in to ex-pat life very well indeed.

Django, now almost fully grown at 4, had a particularly good year chalking up many kills including mice, voles and a mole, as well as many birds of several species.

That wren didn’t stand a fucking chance…

Oscar, Django’s half brother and nephew (work that one out!) isn’t much of a hunter, although he  did his best with flies, moths and craneflies.

Oscar is now bigger than his uncle with another year to grow so he seems almost certain to become one of the bigger Maine Coons and I’m glad to say that along with this growth spurt he’s become a very affectionate and companionable cat. Django is a bit more aloof, although still fantastic company.

Now, the process of change has to start all over again for them.

We’ve been here for almost 2 weeks, during which the cats have been kept in. After a few puddles and turds Oscar has finally started to use the litter tray which is something he never did a year ago when we first came over here. I’m inclined to think that this shows that the disruption of moving here wasn’t as great for him as last year when the two cats had to travel on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen without us.

Liberation day is this coming Saturday when the cats of war will be unleashed upon this tiny and unsuspecting community and Ginger Bastardom will reign in this corner of a foreign field…

Evening meal banter

We’ve just enjoyed a very nice roast pork dinner and used this cutlery (Laguiole Evolution) with which to eat it:

Whilst we ate, I remarked to the ever-fragrant Mrs Shark that this cutlery was the only set we’d ever had that you could class as a deadly weapon.

In fact, I posited, you could really fuck someone up with that knife.

Just saying is all…

High praise for Paisley

Brad Paisley…

Not a name that means much in the UK, but in the US he’s probably the biggest thing in Country music since the dreadful Garth Brooks. However, what makes Paisley stand out from the rest of the big hat-wearing, shit-kicking, yee-haw brigade is his simply stunning guitar playing.

Ignore the stupid hat – just listen to this guy play!

Now, I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a closet Country music fan but whether it’s from the 1940s with Western Swing from Bob Wills, or the present day with artists like Paisley, it’s always the instrumental work which draws me and if its good then I can tolerate the worst examples of  Country cliche.

Paisley’s an interesting character.

I have few doubts that his meteoric rise to fame was as much due to the publicity machine as it was to his talent. He has no ‘pedigree’ as a session player or sidesman and no notable musical career prior to his solo work but he does have – rather tellingly – a degree in Music Business…

However, as a guitarist he’s second to none and can more than hold his own in the company of people like James Burton, Albert Lee, Steve Wariner and John Jorgenson.

To hear Paisley really strut his stuff, try and listen to his ‘Play’ album which features virtually all instrumental work – with a few vocal tracks which you’ll probably want to skip if you really don’t like country singing.

With a palette of styles which run from country through jazz, blues and rock to bluegrass, Paisley ought to be dismissed by rights as a jack of all trades, but, dammit, he’s such a fucking tasty player that you can marvel at his talent no matter what he plays. He also mixes it up, such as in ‘Cliffs of Rock City’ which has to be a tribute to Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” even if you ignore the obvious title similarity. Imagine Johnson with A1 country chops and you’ll get an idea of what the track sounds like.

Another notable track is “Cluster Pluck” with guest guitarists James Burton, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, John Jorgenson, Brent Mason, Redd Volkaert and Steve Wariner. Esteemed company indeed, as each player takes a chorus and some serious headcutting takes place.

“Departure” is another fabulous track and you can see Paisley playing the main figure in this video :

What a gorgeous bit of playing that is, with the open string on top – definitely one that’s going to get nailed next time I haul out my Tele.

What else?

Oh, BB King singing and playing on “Let the Good Times Roll” with BP and BB trading vocals and solos – that ain’t too shabby…

“Les is More” features Paisley in jazzy mode – phew, has he got chops, or what?

He even makes a nice job of gospel with “What a Friend we have in Jesus” showing that he’s not just an electric player but a fine acoustic player too.

Shit – there’s even some surf guitar on “Turf’s Up” – geddit?

I can’t praise this album highly enough – program out a few tracks and you have what is a fine guitar album no matter what your taste in music might be and if you want a few “WHOA, WHAT THE FUCK DID HE DO THERE???” moments then this might be the motherfucker for you…

It’s on Spotify so you can even listen before you buy!

Plots and plans

Here’s a very cool thing.

I don’t know if there’s a similar site in the UK, but here in France you can access what are known as cadastral plans showing buildings and the plots of land associated with them. The site is run by the equivalent of what we call the Land Registry in the UK. It’s a great service as it shows you exactly how much land you have and, if you’re buying, then how much you should have. It’s a free sevice too.

Here’s the cadastral plan of the hamlet or ‘lieu dit’ we live in:

Our house is the one on the right just below the house at the top. Diagonally across the road is a roughly hourglass-shaped plot of land which is where our barn is. Altogether we have 3 plots – #11 with the house on, #10 with the barn on and #56 which extends the garden by the house.

What’s even cooler than being able to access the modern cadastral plans is being able to see what as known as the Napoleonic cadastral plans. These were drawn up on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and were completed over a period of many years. The Napoleonic map showing our hamlet dates from 1840 and our house and barn – as well as the neighbouring properties – are clearly shown on it:

You can even see that some of the plot boundaries were the same in 1840 as they are today. The plot with our barn on is exactly the same shape!

It seems very likely, therefore, that our house dates from at least 1840 and the thick stone walls and massive oak beams certainly bear this out.

Today has been yet another glorious day with unbroken blue sky and, although there’s a chilly breeze, if you can find a sheltered spot then it’s really quite warm and a t-shirt is all you need.

I’ve just been out for a smoke…the lizards are basking on the window sill, blossom is breaking, cowslips are blooming by the pond and I heard a horse whinnying in the distance.

I’m a very happy bunny.

Today, I ‘ave mostly been…

…oiling oak worktops, pruning sloe bushes, changing plugs from British to French ones, putting up a clothesline, Skyping our daughter and listening to Little Feat…

It lives!

After 3 months without internet access at all, and the previous 8 months being a miserable crawl using a 3G dongle that made the days of 56K dialup seem almost fucking halcyon in comparison, we now have broadband here in the deepest wilds of the Mayenne.

Sure, it’s only 2MB, but it’s a very reliable and consistent 2MB and comes as part of an Orange ADSL package that gives us the interwebs, unlimited national and international VOIP phone calls and French TV for a reasonable price.

We finally moved into our house last Friday and this coming Friday marks the beginning of our second year here.

We can’t decide whether the past year has flown by or we’ve been here forever.

Regrets about leaving the UK?

Absolutely fucking none.

The hardest thing is leaving the people we love behind – family and friends – but we’ve been back to the UK twice, are going at least twice this year and have had visitors with more to come.

The continued existence of this blog was never in question and, rest assured, it will be regularly updated with the usual mixture of comment, music reviews and reports from France on what we’re up to.

I’d thought about creating separate blogs for these categories but decided against it as I’d rather put my energies into the writing rather than organise several blogs.

I’m back.