Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Song of the Chainsaw

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that un homme in possession of a wood-burning stove must be in want of a chainsaw.

The delivery of a load of wood is a wonderful, atavistic thing. It speaks of hot fires and warm feet, and it will go on burning even in a power cut. Bring on winter, we’ve got wood – though what we need are logs, so there will be some tailoring of a robust nature required to get the fire going.

I saw an advertisement in an English magazine recently for a dinky little log store with a felted roof, just right, it said, for storing your winter wood out of the weather. It made me laugh; this was a mere toy. What good is that going to be when your wood comes on a tractor in metre lengths? Or you buy fagots from the woodyard, which come as long as the trees they once were? The little fancy store is for hobby-burners, people who get their wood ready-sized, no chainsaw required. Where’s the fun in that?

It’s a little like buying all your fresh meat on little polystyrene trays under gas-filled plastic: it cuts you off from the reality of the source.

For instance, it had never occurred to me that a tree is very heavy. Then one day He Who Does Everything Around Here needed help in topping an oak tree that was hanging over our pond. He climbed the tree, chainsaw in hand, tied a rope around the offending branch, and prepared to cut. I was on the other end of the rope, planning to run in the opposite direction as soon as the branch parted company from the tree.

Run was over-optimistic. I hauled for all I was worth – and I did stop the branch from falling into the water. I just wasn’t expecting it to weigh so much. There is, it seems, a big difference between freshly cut wet wood and a nice dry log ready for burning.

With a little bit of research I could probably find out the ratio of water to wood in such an equation, because there are books out there that will tell you. There are books on how to stack your logs in the optimum shape for drying; what sort of wood to burn; how to stop your chimney from getting too sooty, and what to do if you have been burning wood that is a little too damp, and you get a soot-fall. They will also tell you what to do with your ash.

There is, it turns out, a whole wealth of literature devoted to your cosy fireside. 

A Frenchman, however, has all this information written into his DNA. All over France you will find huge orderly stacks of logs, cut one year for use two years hence. They form barriers along the sides of fields; they are placed between two trees like giant bookends, so they can’t slide away. They are outside houses old and new, in barns, by front doors – everywhere you look. In France, all new-builds are supposed to have the ability to burn wood – forward thinking, if you like. And all this wood needs to be cut to size.

A chainsaw is a dangerous thing. I am told (from a safe distance) that when it starts it can rear up and give you a deep and permanent frown. You are advised in England to wear a special helmet and visor and ear defenders, and bright orange Kevlar trousers. This is so that you can tell which is the tree and which is your leg, and so when to stop. I have never seen a Frenchman using any of these things. In the right hands – experienced hands – it is, after all, just a tool for a specific job.

There is something fascinating about the felling of a tree – something devastating, and permanent, and impossible to put right again. Man has done it for millennia, to provide heat and for the ability to have his steak anything less than blue. It’s part of the folk-memory, stronger in some than in others. So when, as has been the case here recently, the chainsaw is not working properly, it’s not just a broken tool – it’s a man’s right hand, the link between tree and fireplace that’s missing. 

If this is strong in you, but you don’t have a wood store or the capacity to have a real fire in your house, and therefore no excuse at all for lurking in the DIY store next to the really big boy’s toys, don’t despair: you can always download the ring-tone.

It might earn you a look of respect in the supermarket check-out queue. People might think you are a real he-man type, orange trousers hidden beneath your Italian suit.

At the very least it might make them think you are some weirdo in love with your chainsaw.
Now, is that a bad thing?

©lms 2011

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Food and other Heritage

Recently, UNESCO added French gastronomy to its list of the world’s intangible heritage that must be safeguarded. By this they mean the long, not to say interminable, meal which arrives in multiple courses, lasts five hours, and leaves you vowing never, ever to eat again.

I once ate a similar thing in a French gastronomic restaurant in England, and spent the entire night lying like a beached whale unable to turn over for fear of causing a seismic shift. If you are ever going to try this sort of feast, do it at midday – then go for a long walk. It won’t be easy; your legs will complain about the extra weight. But it will be necessary for life as you know it to continue afterwards.

Food, obviously, is important to a French person – so much so, that when the current economic crisis arrived on their doorstep knocking to be let in, the first thing that the government came up with as a means of making money was to increase the TVA ( VAT) on restaurant food and drink from 5.5% to 7%. This, it is implied, will rake in the euros and pay off a fair amount of debt. After all, you’ve got to eat.

That apart, I got to wondering what else was on the list. The Mediterranean diet is there, because it is healthy and kind to your arteries, which it has to be said the grand dinner en fête is not.

There is a Brazilian ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order. Well, a French meal probably equates to that: without food, what have you got?

There is the watertight bulkhead technology of Chinese junks, which, after eating a meal of the larger variety, though by no means junk food, washed down as it is with copious and varied types of wine, would come in handy.

Mongolia is represented for, amongst many other things, circular breathing in the Limbe folk long song performances – and trust me, after the gastronomic blow out, circular breathing is about all you can manage. Anything deeper is impossible.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival rates an inclusion, but one hopes it won’t come to that; just keep the antacids handy.

The UK, however, is conspicuous in its absence. Now, I think this is unfair, and would like to redress the balance a little. I have one particular ingredient in mind that really ought to be included, and which you will not find in French gastronomy – or any other level of cookery: and that is suet.

You don’t get suet on sale in the supermarket here. You won’t see it displayed in a butcher’s shop. A lady I know asked for some, and was handed the whole portion of animal fat, as cut from the carcase. It ended up in her garden for birds to peck at, but they were French birds and declined on the grounds of deep suspicion.

Where is the French dumpling? The steamed pudding? Mincemeat, in which suet is the only remnant of its historical past as a savoury mixture? They don’t exist. Suet, you see, is a regional delicacy, and that region is the UK. So, on the grounds that the intangible heritage list is for things that should be safeguarded, and as suet is under threat from the cholesterol war, I think it deserves a place.

In the 16th Century, a French diplomat said that to visit England in the pudding season was to come at the best of seasons. So, in these difficult times, perhaps we should cancel the gastronomy and eat suet. You’d be just as full, at a fraction of the cost, and you can clog up your arteries without having to sit at the table for hours on end. What more can you ask?

If only Marie Antoinette had said, “Let them eat suet” – who knows where history would have led?

©lms 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

After You.   No, After You.

Now, I want you to pay attention, class, because this is going to be complicated. We are going to discuss the knotty question of la priorité à droite.

The idea is that, at any junction, any vehicle (and that includes the two wheeled, leg-powered variety) approaching from the right has priority, except when it doesn’t.

It doesn’t, when it has a sign telling it that it doesn’t. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up. 

Now, supposing you are proceeding along at, say, 90 kph, on your largish sort of road, and there is another joining from the right. It’s not big, not small, but a useful sort of road to the people who live up that way. They use it regularly. In fact, there is a car approaching along it now. You would assume, you daredevil, you, that you have right of way because yours is the Big Road. But do you? Can you see the sign on the other road that says so? No, because there are trees or a hedge in the way. In fact, there are many such junctions, and you can’t actually see much of any of them, just at the critical point.

(Signage in France is a whole other problem: quite often you will miss your turning because the sign is there for people coming the other way. They don’t expect you to want to go to A from B, only from C, so they aren’t going to tell you B’ers when to turn. And as for deviations – take a map and a packet of sandwiches, because you are going to be abandoned halfway along the route.  But that is for another discussion).

You have to assume, in that case, that you don’t have priority, because if they do, they are entitled to take it, and saunter out in front of you at a critical moment. They, you see, have been told that they should not use excessive speed when entering onto another road. 

You will be delighted to know that really small country lanes do not have this right, so you will only have to be alert to every other sort of side turning.

Streets, cul-de-sacs, however small, can have the right of way over anything they join (unless they don’t). Your way may lead you across a dual carriageway, in which case one would devoutly hope that the sign makers had been diligent, and the road painters lavish with their white lines; but in case they haven’t, and you do therefore have right of way across the two lanes nearest you, you must stop in the middle, and think twice, and make sure that the other road users have spotted you.

If, however, you lose your nerve, and actually stop, even though there is nothing to tell you to do so, you must then behave as though there is: you must give way. It’s your own fault.

Roundabouts in general have the appropriate signs and rules: vehicles approaching from the left – that is, those already stuck on the roundabout and so in a panic about how to get off the darn thing – have priority, and you would need to be – well, a Frenchman, to ignore this.  We were crossing a small roundabout near a major retail outlet the other day: we clearly had the right to proceed, and the road on the right was definitely signposted with a triangular STOP sign. The driver we encountered, too closely for comfort, not only ignored the imperative but stared right at us as he did so. I was forced to make a gesture, which did not mean  “live long and prosper”. I was in the passenger seat, so he won’t have seen it, but I hope he felt the vibe.

Happy motoring!
©lms 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Making Haste Slowly

I’ve been in England a bit recently, which inevitably means I’ve been stuck in traffic. A lot.
I’ve been up and down the middle of the country on motorways, I’ve been in cities and towns and on country lanes, and it is no pleasure at all.

But whilst I’ve chugged along behind all the other cars trying to get from A to B in one piece, I’ve have time to think. 

For instance: why do lorries overtake each other? It takes on average three minutes for a reasonable-sized lorry to pull out, creep up on the one in front, overhaul it, and pull back in – so close, mind you, that the overtakee flashes the overtaker as soon as he has passed the front wing by a hair’s breadth to say that he has achieved his goal. That’s to say, he has gained about thirty feet of road, and a change of view. He has also annoyed a lot of car drivers, but that’s just a bonus.

And why do people in big towns buy fast cars? What is the point? They sit in the traffic, commuting to and from their executive homes on the periphery – and it’s only a matter of time before their edge of town houses become not quite edge of town any more houses – in their BMWs and Audis, which were built for the autobahn, not the Manchester Ring Road. They can’t do more than 30mph at the fastest moments, which are few and far between. 

Maybe the point is that, on the odd occasion when there is a gap in the traffic, they need all the torque they can get just to make a break from one lane to the next, because they are only going to get a tiny chance to do so.

Given the state of the roads, what you really need is a Land Rover – and not the fancy town version, either. Why risk your super-expensive suspension on the pothole-fest that is the British road system? In fact, get a 2CV – they were designed to be able to drive across a ploughed field, so that’s about right for the circumstances.

Whilst we were there, a lady was caught causing havoc by driving at 10mph on a major road, in the rush hour. Several drivers called the police, who came out in force. They tried to attract her attention in the usual way, but she ignored them, until she came to a roundabout. When they attempted to block her, she just kept going round in circles until a policeman got out of his car, ran alongside and tapped on the window.

Well, she said, she never goes 40mph – it’s too dangerous and you can’t stop.

It’s also practically impossible on most roads at that time of day. 

The only plausible reason to own a flash car in urban Britain is so that the man in the next car can look at you in envy, and think, Gosh, you look good in that, or, That’s a handsome hunk of metal you’ve got there – you must earn a lot.

Or maybe it’s to pretend that, if you ever got the chance to go over 40mph, you wouldn’t be afraid to try. Otherwise known as, you’re bluffing. How can you possibly know?

©lms 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The End of Summer

Every Tuesday, the mail box is crammed full of publicité. This is advertising from supermarkets, garages, furniture shops, and places that sell nothing but plastic, disguised as furniture and sundry household items.
The supermarket flyers are filled with pictures of meat. I have always found this rather odd. If I know I want a piece of beef, or some mince, or a chicken, I don’t need to see it, glistening in various states of undress with a decorative bit or parsley or a lemon carefully placed.  I’ll go to the shop and look at the meat on sale and decide then if it is up to my exacting standards.
There is nothing about a photograph of minced beef that is going to have me reaching for coat, purse and shopping bag and hurtling out the door with my tongue hanging out.  As for the picture of a whole bovine tongue, ready to boil, curled cosily round a carrot – no, thanks. I’ll pass.
This week, however, there is more in the publicité. It’s the end of summer: all the aoutiens are returning to work, the roads are growing quiet (not that they were exactly busy at the height of the season) and the hedge cutters are out in force. It’s nearly autumn; and next week, the schools go back.
This is the excuse to try to sell anything in bulk. You’ve finished being on holiday, so you must want to stock up on toothbrushes, washing liquid, crockery and cutlery. It’s all there, under the heading of La Rentrée
But the big thing is the stationery. School children here have to be provided with everything they will need for class and homework: files, folders, paper with special lines on to help them write neatly, pens, paints, labels, glue – all of it must be bought, and a bag to haul it about in, for each child in the family. It costs a fortune.
Back in the days when money was big, and weighed heavily in our pockets, there used to be a stationer’s on the way home from school, called E.P. Jones. I have no idea if it still exists, but to us it was an Aladdin’s cave of stuff. Pencils with gonks on the ends, exercise books with the Times Tables on the back, and weights and measures; crayons, fountain pens, ink in all the colours you could possibly need – all of it treasure, and all affordable, a bit at a time, from our pocket money. We bought it because we wanted it (and because it didn’t rot our teeth).
Now children are bent under the weight of what Mama has had to bring home by the trolley load. You see families with lists, poring over the shelves to make sure they get the right kind of felt pen.  Some people try to spread the load over the summer, but the good offers will only be available at the last minute. They must sit beside their mail boxes, desperate to grab the publicité, and to get down to the shop with the best prices whilst stocks last.
I don’t know if the children are excited to be bought all this lovely new equipment, or resigned to the fact that it signals the end of summer. They may grow up to associate the buying of a new pen with Mama and Papa no longer having the time to play with them. There is no school uniform, so they aren’t all crammed back into the dreary colours of the English schoolchild’s daily wear, but even so, the message is clear, and must stay with them for life: when your world comes down to paper and ink, the fun’s over.
©lms 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Bit of a Boar

Driving through the countryside the other day – well, we can’t actually go anywhere without driving through the countryside – I spotted a man on the edge of a wood carrying a bow and arrow. The bow was big, modern, and professional-looking, and it reminded me that la chasse is almost upon us.
This is the season when signs appear along roadsides warning you that packs of dogs may erupt at any time from the undergrowth in pursuit of real, or imaginary, prey. There will be men in bright red hats lurking at field entries with large guns in hand, and whole fleets of white vans pulled up at the roadside in the middle of nowhere.
These men will, after the first foray, have gone back to base for a hunt breakfast. This will have involved huge amounts of food and some alcohol, to ward off the cold, and to bolster the spirits of those who will spend the entire time standing around waiting for something to happen.
La chasse is a very well organised event. In order to be allowed out with your gun and your fellow man, you will have a license, and to get that, you will have to pass an exam. This deals with the kind of game you are allowed to hunt, and what it looks like in all its stages of growth. You will be able to identify the right age of your prey, so that you don’t kill off next year’s animals. You will know which bird is edible, and what sex the boar is that is heading towards you bent on head-butting you to death.
All over the country there will be solitary men with guns broken over their arms, strolling through bare autumnal fields with their Breton spaniels racing around and ahead, eager to help bring home the spoils. And every Sunday morning at around 8am, there will be the pop-pop of sportsmen trying to shoot something startled out of its weekend torpor.
There will be stories in the papers about the ones that got away, and the ones that didn’t. One year, the police were called to a road accident involving a boar and a car. When they arrived, there was only a boar-shaped stain on the ground, and no sign of either. I suppose one man on his own couldn’t shift the boar – which is a big, big animal – and so called the authorities. But several men, in passing vehicles, say, who saw his dilemma, could manhandle the beast into a handily open back door, and take it away for later consumption. Boar is very good to eat.
Here in Brittany, it is possible to go hunting with a bow and arrow. It’s how it used to be done, after all; and if a boar stands on your inadvertently abandoned bow, it is not going to be able to shoot you in the leg whilst you hide up a tree (much the best idea).  Furthermore, you are less likely to accidentally shoot your colleagues, which happens a little too frequently for comfort.
The thing is that hunting here is about food. Unless it is causing havoc, if you can’t eat it, why go to the lengths of trekking across fields in the cold, consuming a huge breakfast, and standing around for hours trying to kill it? And if there is a problem – as when hares were found to be suffering from a form of leukaemia – the hunt bans the killing of the animals to give them chance to recover. It’s organised; it involves all levels of society; and it means that many households own large guns which are, by and large, responsibly used.
So, if your farmer neighbour invites you to partake of a dinner of civet of wild boar, remember to check his van for big dents as you go in. If there aren’t any, be very polite about the cooking.

©lms 2011