Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lille. October 2007

My only contact with Lille had been en route to Paris via Eurostar. The train stops momentarily in a concrete structure that bodes ill.
But sitting next to a civil servant at Lord’s cricket ground, and discussing holidays, he recommended L’Hermitage Gantois hotel in that city as his favourite holiday destination. So, wanting a short break in France, we aimed for it, getting a good deal through “the net” at a very expensive place.
The hotel had been a religious institution and centre of hospitality since the 15th century. It had been turned into a luxury establishment by joining up buildings of religious accommodation around four courtyard gardens. The main, central courtyard, had been glazed over to form a light and airy atrium. In this stood a central bar, surrounded by comfortable pale blue leather armchairs and sofas. To the side of this courtyard was a fully furnished church. So it could be an ideal hotel for those of a religious inclination.
Our spacious room was decorated in new oak panelling in the Louis XV style, with an equally grand Carrara green marble tiled bathroom. But there were strange omissions in design. There were no drawers, and minimal hanging space for clothes. The electrics worked magically by placing the room “key” in a slot just inside the door. But there was only one bedside light, and to turn off the two bright overhead lights, it was necessary to get out of bed and switch them off in the corners of the room. There was no bidet (are they really so out of fashion? How sad.). I often think that in a “no-expense-spared” hotel room that there should be a small pissoir for men near to the lavatory. Men, by their nature and structure are inclined to dribble and splash. So for hygiene’s sake one would be an advantage. And it would save men from having to always raise and lower the lavatory seat. There was no lavatory brush. To turn on the bath water was a job for a contortionist – and a contortionist who would get soaked by the shower in the process. So I eventually had to fill the bath through the spout and shower. The grey marble basin was a pleasure to use and charm to the eye. It took the form of a small cascade rather than the normal bowl. The towels were great, many and thick, with creams and shampooy things exemplary.
Hanging on the oak panelling of the room were some pleasant reproductions of 18th century prints. The one above my side of the comfortable bed was of a mother spanking her naughty child with a bunch of flowers. It was titled: “Punishment of Love”.
We had arrived in time for lunch after an uneventful journey by rail. So, in our usual way, we sought advice on where we might eat. Recommended places were either too grand for lunch, or closed. But in the rue de Pas stood Les 400 Coups. It was full, the waiters busy and efficient, and the menu offering mostly grilled meat. We were fitted in, and noticed that this was a place for trenchermen, and with the food served on trenchers. With a view to possibly returning, I picked a sample dish of all the grilled meats on offer (ribs, lamb, beef, chicken and gammon). Margreet chose two meats. With whole roast potatoes and salad, the helpings were huge and excellent, washed down with Bel Pils beer and equally excellent carafe red wine. We had made a great choice for our first meal in Lille.
As is our wont, we are inclined to overdo our eating on the first day in France. And this was no exception.
After shopping unsuccessfully in Galeries Lafayette and Printemps we took our aperitifs in a café on the large central square (Place G. de Gaulle) – a square rather too large, not particularly interesting architecturally, and with too small a central feature to hold it all together.
As we had noticed already in the shops, the dress for both sexes was drab – blacks browns and greys. To see someone, even wearing a coloured sweater, was cause for joy. And there were a surprising number of the halt and maim.
We decided to eat in our hotel’s red painted and golden vaulted dining room. One dish (the hors d’oeuvre) was exceptional. It was a fricassée of snails, garlic, butter, parsley, cep mushrooms and duck liver – one item having a distinctly smoky flavour. With bread and wine it could have made a splendid meal on its own.
A visit to the Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille was instructive. Its vast halls had so much wall space it was as if they had to purchase the largest works of classical art as possible to hang on them. But there were jewels to be found there. The best was a Brueghel of a snow scene that held interest in the details of what was going on at the time and, if standing back, the entire composition. There was a Bosch and two large Goyas to make the visit memorable.
On leaving those halls of art it was time for a quiet lunch at the Bistrot de Pierrot nearby. Next to us at first was a furniture manufacturer who gave us good advice on what to eat there, choosing from the blackboard menu.
Then in came six large men of our country’s Rugby fraternity, en route to Paris for the World Cup semi-final between England and France. They were in festive mood, of considerable importance in life, and discerning of food, wine, and accommodation. In no time we were on intimate terms, soon to be joined by a French couple whose nephew is the one who smuggles in a live cockerel to England/France matches at Twickenham.
So with much banter and in fine spirits, we conversed, laughed, drank and ate. So our “quiet” meal turned out to be a rather noisy one.
The “crunch” match was to be played in Paris that evening. So we shopped in Lille for an evening’s television picnic of bagette, bressaola and Morbier cheese. For the wine, we chose one that we knew well - Lidl’s excellent South African Pinotage (at under £2).
After drinks in the hotel’s covered atrium, we settled in for a night of picnic and sport.
The television build-up coverage was considerable. Interviews, replays, expectant hosts, the favourites… on it went. And the more it continued in that vein, the more we were conscious of the huge expectation that the French nation had placed on the shoulders of their team. Could the Latin temperament take it?
Then it was “off”. The match was nail-bitingly close. The final whistle was blown, with the underdogs, the English, victorious.
The shouts from our room of “on a gagné” were so loud that we must have rattled the bones of those hermits and nuns who had once resided in the surrounding hospice cells in silence.
The television programme then turned to interviewing the sad, defeated players – ones who had so hugely let their country down. There was only one brief shot of the victorious English. The French were suffering – and made to suffer more in their defeat. They were still the hosts for the Rugby World Cup, but now only as onlooking hosts, no longer participants. One really felt quite sorry for them.
So Sunday came, and our plan was to investigate “Old Lille”. The buildings were ornate with deep carvings and glowing colours – more Dutch/Belgian then French. In fact, the entire old town and its way of life felt more Belgian than French. Margreet pronounced the women’s fashion shops there to be excellent.
In the rue de Monnaie, at the Place du Concert, was a quite splendid and very crushed market, where locals were doing their Sunday and week’s shopping. Cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers, roasting meats and much more, were there for those willing to force their way around the many stalls.
We drank beer at a roadside pavement café table to watch the drably coloured but well dressed people go about their business.
With many restaurants closed on the Sabbath, where were we to lunch? I asked a flower shop assistant about to display his wares on the pavement. Where did he like to eat in the district? The restaurant recommended was Chez la Vieille, in the rue de Gand. It was closed, but a sign in the window told that their sister restaurant, Au Vieux de la Vieille, in the Place aux Onions nearby, was open on Sundays. So, in this simple and unsophisticated café/restaurant we ate excellently and cheaply. Typical of Flemish food were dishes cooked with Maroilles. What were Maroilles? I thought that they sounded like mushrooms. It turned out to be a cheese, with a very pungent smell of a farmyard and taste to match. I had it in a white sauce surrounding chicken – yes, distinctive.
So, wanting only a token meal that evening, we returned to Au Vieux de la Vieille, where they like to serve food on wooden planks. So we started with two small, hard sausages, served on its plank, to be cut with a sharp knife. Then we shared a dish of a mixed plank, consisting of two cheeses, two thick slices from terrines, salad and chips. It was quite enough, and accompanied by a jug of wine – from the simple list choice of red, white or rosé.
Back at the hotel we watched a television programme of the other Rugby semi-final, with South Africa beating Argentina.
For our last lunch we ate up-market, and very well, on scallops and roe deer chops. But the uniqueness of the restaurant, La Part des Anges, in rue de la Monnaie, was that the wine, chosen from an extensive blackboard list, was only available “by the glass”. We thought this to be an excellent idea.
So our short break in Lille was almost over. Our feelings were that we liked Lille very much in almost every respect. We never had a meal that was less than excellent – and all much to our taste. The shops, especially the fashion boutiques, were top class. But with no “heart” in the form of movement from the activities of river, canals or port, we might go somewhere else next time. But I doubt if we’ll eat as well.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Asymmetrical Bridge

My son, Pete, is the owner of a 1954, 4’ x 2’ painting, by me, of an asymmetrical bridge over the Basingstoke Canal in Hampshire.
When I was painting landscape in those days I stayed in lodgings and scoured the country to find congenial subjects. Canals had always appealed to me. I can not recall what drew me to this particular bridge. But I set up my easel on the bank of the disused Basingstoke Canal on a day so cold that there was snow on the ground and ice on puddles where once had been deep water for barges – canal boats, incidentally, that were considerably wider than those in the rest of the country.
Pete had for a long time wanted to see the actual bridge. So I looked up its position on the old maps I had used at the time, and then new, only to discover that in the meantime the M3 motorway passed by, either very close to it or even over it. So it was with more hope than expectation that Pete, Margreet and I, with a photograph of the ’54 painting in hand, set out to find our bridge in October 2007.
Leave at junction 5, I told them, cross over the motorway, turn left, pass through a village called Nately Scures and take the first left.
That first left was a narrow country lane, leading to Up Nately.
We crossed over the motorway on a modern bridge and, looking down from it, could see no sign of canal workings. And then, there before us, was a narrowing of the lane with a hump back. We passed over it and looked down on to the canal – still unused and mostly dry, damp, or of stagnant water.
Parking the car in a space near to a red telephone box, we made our way back to the bridge and down to the old towpath via a very slippery set of crumbling steps.
And there it was in front of us – the red brick, asymmetrical bridge.
We walked beneath it to find the actual place where I had set up my easel in 1954, crossing the moist canal on foot and getting rather muddy in the process.
Practically nothing had changed. The tree in the left foreground had spread its branches and increased its girth. The canal was as dry, but now with puddles covered in duckweed instead of ice. And a sort of low sluice, installed presumably to hold back water to form a pond, had gone, manifesting itself as scattered, green lichen encrusted bricks.
I wanted to inspect the brickwork of the bridge. And the more I saw, the crazier the design became apparent.
The insides of the single arch were not straight, but deliberately bowed in shape. The brickwork where the bridge’s construction met the ground, splayed outwards. The apex of the arch on one side of the road was about 4’ to the side from the apex of the other. The parapets on either side of the roadway varied in height, so that at one place it was possible to lean on the brickwork and on another to trip over it. The coping bricks on the parapets were sometimes flat, sometimes rounded. The bricks were of differing colour and not always laid evenly. Because of the shape of the canal cutting, one side of the bridge was made with far more brickwork than the other. In fact, practically nothing about this bridge was as expected. It was asymmetrical and original in almost every aspect. The whole construction was a brilliant flight of fancy. And it was made during the construction of the canal between 1789 and 1794.
Who designed it? Who made it? Why had this part of the canal not been re-opened for recreational purposes like many of the others in the country?
There was a small house nearby, perched high above the cutting and shrouded in greenery. I took our photograph of the painting to show the occupants, who seemed unaware of this delightful construction almost beneath their doorstep. They kindly directed us to a pub a few miles down the road.
At the Fox and Goose, in very pretty Greywell village, we lunched off well-prepared country food and drank excellent beer. I asked the landlady if she knew much about the canal. She produced a short account of its history, written by a local.
Of the design or construction of the bridge there was no information. I like to think of a crowd of navvies who specialised in knocking up bridges out of their heads to suit the local conditions as they went along with their comrades digging out the canal.
The reason why the canal thereabouts has remained for so long untouched and part of nature’s blend in and around it, is that some of it passes through a tunnel 1230 yards long, called the Greywell Tunnel. And in this tunnel are bats – lots of them. It is thought that 10,000 might be wintering there. And bats must be looked after and protected.
What might the future hold for this charming and quite unspoilt small corner of late 18th century rural England? The bridge has stood the test of time, aided by iron ties and repaired brickwork (the original bricks came from a brickworks at Nately Scures a short distance away). A rent in the parapet on one side was disturbing. But as long as the bats continue to favour the Greywell Tunnel, then there is hope – for no change. Should the bridge ever be torn down (God forbid), at least, the image will remain for as long as that 1954 picture lasts.

Friday, October 05, 2007

No Trouble Kneaded Bread

Since writing a recipe for No Need to Knead Bread I have been experimenting with making real, kneaded bread, with the least possible work or trouble. I do not believe that the following recipe could be simpler. And out of it you will obtain three loaves for well below the price of a bought one, and without the cost of a bread-making machine and the electricity needed to make it work. The resultant bread will have a slight feel of cake about it.


You will need:
1 ½ kilo packet of strong white bread flour.
Turmeric (optional for colour)
Dried yeast
3 non-stick bread tins.

In a large bowl put the flour with a little salt and a pinch or two of turmeric (for a pleasant colour in the finished bread).
Now, in a half pint measuring beaker, put hot water in which to dissolve a scant teaspoon of honey. Then add a heaped teaspoon of dried yeast. Stir it all together.
Top up the beaker with hot water and place it on top of the flour in the bowl. Scoop up some of the flour to cover the liquid in the beaker.
Place the bowl and beaker in a warm place. An under-floor-heated surface is ideal.
When the flour surface in the beaker is bubbling, and with the yeasty liquid overflowing, stir the entire contents of the beaker into the flour.
You will now have to add two beakers full of hot water, being very careful as you get to the end of the final one, as having stirred in the liquid so far and obtained a slightly dry-to-sticky mass of a ball, it is easy to overdo the liquid and form a gooey mass (which is quite unsuitable).
Now take the ball of dough out of the bowl with your hands, and scrape the bowl with a spatula to add any bits clinging to the sides. Now knead the ball on a flat, dry, clean, unfloured surface. Too firm a dough will result in poor rising and rather solid bread. Too plastic a mixture may overflow the tins when rising. Aim for pleasing elasticity.
The kneading process is done with the balls of your hands pushing into the dough and away from you. As you do it, the dough will become sausage shaped. Fold in the ends to form a rough ball again, and repeat the process. Continue kneading until the ball (which will become drier as you work on it) looks well blended. I do it for about three to four minutes. It takes a little muscle power, but is a most satisfactory process to be involved in.
Form the kneaded dough into a round ball and, with the point of a sharp knife, mark it into three equal sections. Now cut the sections apart and place each in a non-stick bread tin.
Stretch out the rather elastic dough to cover the base of the tin. And then, with the said sharp knife, score across the surface of the dough a few times. Return the tins to the selected warm place.
When the dough has risen to the state when it looks as if it might overflow the three tins, put them into an oven that you have previously heated to its maximum.
Give them half an hour at full heat and another half an hour at medium to low heat.
Tip out the loaves onto a wire mesh rack and allow them to cool.
Eat right away, or freeze them in sealed plastic bags until wanted.

P.S. At the time of stirring in warm water to make the dough, I have been adding olive oil. I think that the loaves have been even better.

Leeks Vinaigrette

It was in Paris, in the Marais district, and chose leeks as the hors d’oeuvre. They were so tender that they melted in the mouth. How was it done? I made a guess, and have since altered my ideas. Here is a pretty good way to serve them.


You will need:
Vinaigrette (olive oil, vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pepper and icing sugar)

Buy clean white leeks – ones that will not need a wash to extract soil or dirt – the younger and smaller the better.
Top and tail them and cook them in water in a pressure cooker for 35 minutes – or much longer if using a saucepan. Or you can steam them for 45 minutes.
Retaining the cooking water for soup, lift them out and place them between two plates or serving dishes of the same design and squeeze them until nearly all of the moisture has gone from them. The drained water may also be used for part of a soup.
Place the flattened leeks on serving plates and coat them with a strong vinaigrette.
Decorate with milled pepper, a sprinkling of paprika or a mint or sage leaf or two.
Another possibility is to cut up the leeks after they have been pressed. Put the bits in a serving dish and cover with vinaigrette. Decorate as you please.