Thursday, December 8, 2011

11:11, 11/11, '11

Plaque commemorating The Canadian/USA Commando unit, the" Devil's Brigade" in Menton

Remembrance Day or Armistice Day as it is known in France, has come and gone.  If you take out your calculator or if you have a head for mathematics,  you'll soon realise that veterans of World War II are gradually becoming extinct.

While I was roaming around down town Menton on November 11 looking for an Armistice Day ceremony to attend and have a good sniffle,  I had some time to reflect on a man I once met named Gerald...

It was because of cakes and pies that our paths crossed. You see, when Auntie visits Canada in the summer, once a week I guide a three hour baking group at the local seniors' residence.  My bakers are mostly women aged 50 to 102 and every week we bake something different and delicious followed by tea in china cups while we chat and fold crisp linen napkins into pretty shapes.

Gee, Nothing about Armistice Day in the German Papers
One of my bakers was Gerald and Gerald was a World War II veteran.  He was 16 when he joined the military.

I loved it when Gerald joined our baking group.  He was the sole rooster amongst us hens but I think he may have liked it that way.  He was quite the charming ladies' man in his day.  He would often regale us with compelling and amusing stories about his many war time exploits.  One of my favourite stories of his was about the time he went skinny dipping in the Thames and another when he danced his heart out in London with on D-Day when the war ended.

I admired Gerald's sense of duty, patriotism for Canada and above all, his youthful disregard for the dangers he would be facing.  He wanted to have a grand adventure and if you ever were lucky enough to hear his stories, he did.  He never spoke of battles, the horrors of the war or ugly memories that would be natural for a soldier in battle. 

In his later years, Gerald suffered a stroke and he often had trouble with his memory.  Every week he showed me his photo album as though it was the first time he was showing it to me but I didn't mind.  It was filled with his cherished memories and photos of his reunion with his fellow veterans of Juno beach.  

Sadly, Gerald passed away last winter and the baking group seems a bit quiet without him.
It's Armistice Day!  Let's go Shopping!

I was thinking about Gerald when I was roaming the streets of Menton, looking for a Remembrance Day ceremony which I never found.  You'd never have guessed it was Remembrance Day because everywhere you looked it was business as usual. Small children were riding on the carousel, an antiques market in main square was doing a roaring business and many of the shops were opened despite the solemnity of the day.  Even the many international newspapers at the news stand seemed to overlook it.

I couldn't help seeing the irony of it all:  brave men and women selflessly  defend us so we can eventually forget about war and instead enjoy frivolous things like shopping for sweaters and shoes, eating ice cream and riding on carousels. 

Thank you Gerald, the hens and I miss you.. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Find Your Own Fungus

The annual fall rain has finally arrived to the relief of all the plants that have been struggling to survive since July, which was the last time it rained here on the coast.  

Little green sprouts are popping up here and there where the week before there was only dry, parched earth.  Too bad they're all weeds.  Well, maybe not all weeds....

When I was leaving the house, I spotted a cluster of small, brown mushrooms growing in the garden on an old hydrangea stump.  Normally I would just ignore them or throw them in the compost heap but in the spirit of culinary discovery,  and with visions of mushroom risotto dancing in my head, I put on some gloves, gently picked them, put them in a plastic container and then zoomed down town to learn more about them. 

Mushroom foraging is a big tradition in France.  I remember reading in a cooking magazine about French housewives who burn down forests to ensure a good supply of morel mushrooms for their dinner table.  I'm not sure if this was a true tale but it sure gave me a sense of the passion the French have for mushrooms.

France has strict laws about how mushrooms are foraged so before running off with your sauté pan and butter, you need to read up on the rules.
The best place to start is to find the closest Mairie or City Hall, to where you're foraging.  Here they will tell you where and when mushroom picking is permitted and how they should be picked.  Usually the only tool permitted is a knife.

You'll also need a wicker basket in which to put your picked mushrooms so as you stroll through the forest, the spores can spread here and there to assist in their propagation.
But once you find some mushrooms, how do you know if they're safe to eat? 

If you trust your eyesight, your power of observation and you have a big magnifying glass you can always buy both volumes of the 1962 French classic, Petit Atlas des Champignons.  Auntie found her copies at a recent Vide Grenier.  One of the volumes describes in detail the characteristics of most of the mushrooms known to man and in the other are detailed drawings of each of them.     My favourite part is the legend:  it describes how edible each of the mushrooms is from ho-hum to delicious and from uninteresting to poisonous. 

Edible or not?
If you are a modern forager, you can always consult two reliable websites:   The Société mycologique de France or l'atlas des champignons.  If you're going it alone, just remember to check that  your life insurance policy is up to date.

If you live in the North of France you can get expert guidance and go foraging with La Société Mycologique du Nord de la France (SMNF)They take groups on foraging expeditions and sometimes eat what they find at the end of the day.
My Friendly Neighbourhood Pharmacist

The Deadly Amanita Phalloides
Rather than rely on books and websites, I chose a really safe and traditional option:  I headed for the local pharmacist.  For generations, pharmacists in France have been trained to identify mushrooms, free of charge, and at one glance they can tell you if what you found is edible or not and sometimes provide a recipe.  Alas, it's a dying art.  When once upon a time every village pharmacist was trained in mycology and mushroom identification it's now optional for anyone studying to become a pharmacist in France.  It's bad news for little villages where one bad mushroom could wipe out half the population.

In fact, about 30 people a year die from mushroom poisoning in France, most of them from consuming the Deadly Amanita Phalloides.  I can see why.  They look a lot like harmless button mushrooms.  

Well, the friendly pharmacist identified my mushrooms as collybia dryophila and even though they smelled pleasant and fresh and looked like they'd be great on top of a risotto, they are considered, "edible but not worthwhile." The pharmacist recommended that I throw them away.  Upon leaving the pharmacy, I did just that. 

From now on, just to be on the safe side, I think I'll stick to getting my mushrooms from the market.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Auntie Get yer Gun

There is something you may not know about Auntie.  She loves to shoot guns.  Not to kill anything or anyone, mind you, but just for fun.  Pistols, rifles, air guns, whatever I can pick up and aim at a target is my idea of a good time.

When I was a girl I'd spend sunny summer afternoons in the fields surrounding our house shooting air rifles with the tomboy tolerant boys in the neighbourhood.  Most of what we shot at were old bottles with the occasional milkweed pod or tree thrown in and I was quite good at it.  The moment I shattered my first bottle with a single shot, I was hooked.

Last year while I was shooting targets at a game at the Monaco fair, hoping to win a lovely Hello Kitty mug, a friendly woman with her young daughter in tow picked up a rifle and started shooting targets beside me.  After 5 shots we both stopped to examine our handiwork.  "You're a good shot" she said to me to which I replied, "you are too!"

Then she asked me if I was a member of Monaco's shooting range. "Shooting range?" I replied.  I could hardly believe my ears.  Monaco had a shooting range?  Wow.  This could be my opportunity to learn how to shoot a pistol properly.

After a bit of research all systems were go.  Monaco's Stand de tir or shooting range, was founded in 1912 and is located in the neighbourhood called Fontvielle in La Carabine de Monaco, or Monaco's Gun Club. Most of the club's 4,000 square metres, a luxurious amount of space by Monaco's standards, is taken up with shooting ranges for anything from a 10 metre pistol (this is where Auntie shoots) to large calibre weapons that are used by the police, hunters and competitive shooters.  In fact it's where the police go to practice.

As it turns out, in order to join the Gun Club you need to be over 18 or have parental permission if you're not, fill in some forms, have your photo taken, pay a fee and then visit a doctor to get a medical certificate.  Getting the medical certificate didn't go quite as planned...

I thought that visiting the doctor would be just a formality, he'd look at me, ask a few questions to make sure I wasn't a nut case and then sign some papers.  Nope.  Instead, he and his nurse put me through a basic medical check-up that included blood pressure, an eye test, weight, height, and balance tests, an ear, nose and throat exam, a neurological exam and an EKG.  It must have been a slow day.

I didn't really mind all the poking and prodding but if I'd known, I would have come prepared and worn my best underwear.  Aside from that, I can definitely say that the medical exam was worth it because it was free and I found out I was in perfect health!  The big pay-off?  I left his office, certificate in hand.

If you've never shot at targets before, I can describe what it's like:  soothing and invigorating at the same time and it's the difference between the two that makes it so difficult to do well.  Just when you think you're doing fine, poppity - popping your targets with a steady hand, slowly the adrenalin kicks in and your hand starts to wobble, your eyes blur and your concentration unwinds.  When this happens, it's time to put down your pistol, take some deep breaths, retract your target and call it a day.  Overcoming the effects of the adrenalin is where the mastery comes in.

To quote my patient and Zen-like shooting teacher, Monsieur Jean, "Madame, you need to slow down, clear your mind, slowly release the trigger and the bullet will find the target by itself."  Well that sounds easy!

Practice makes perfect as they say and Auntie plans to practice as much as she can.

Who knows?  Maybe if I get good enough I can be in the 2012 London Olympics.

In the meantime, I'm thinking of all the stuff I can win at the fair!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Keepin' it Clean Part II. Poop et Scoop? Mais Non!

We know it was you!

It's one of those great French mysteries and it has not escaped the notice of anyone visiting France, especially for the first time.

No, it's not how the French eat croissants for breakfast and meat smothered in heavy sauces for dinner but still remain thin.  No, it's more mysterious than that.  It's why they leave dog poop everywhere.  Yes, dear readers, poop. As you can see,  Auntie is not afraid to tackle the big, stinky issues.
Imagine if you will, a fine and sunny day.  You decide to take a walk to look around and maybe do a bit of shopping.  One minute you're enjoying the view, merrily skipping along and then the next minute, SPLAT, SQUISH and PEW!  Your pretty shoe is covered in stinky brown dog poop.  So much for your good mood.

Everywhere you go in France it seems, you have to keep one eye on the ground at all times.  After a while it becomes a reflex but if you've just returned from a trip from somewhere where there's no dog poop and you're out of practice it's particularly perilous.  Trust Auntie on this.  Don't ask.

Free Poop bags!
For whatever reason, a lot of people in France own dogs and many of them love to leave their dog's poop wherever they want.  According to the Société Protectrice des Animaux,  the French own about 8.8 million dogs who each poop an average of 220 pounds a year each.  Uncle Jim did some calculations for me: annually, these 8.8 million dogs produce 19 million pounds of poop and that's enough to fill all the galleries in the Louvre almost 5 feet deep with poop.  That's high enough to reach the Mona Lisa's chin!

In Menton the poop situation is especially grim.  I once read in a guide book that half the residents of Menton were seniors, the other half were poodles and that's not so far from the truth!  In fact, there is such a poop problem in Menton that they have a special fleet of motorcycles that are customized for sucking up dog poop.  We call them the "Poop Patrol."

Here's how they work.  When a Poop Patroller spots dog poop, he pulls over, lifts a long, wide tube that's attached to a reservoir at the back of his motorcycle and places it on top of the poop.  After a few seconds, there's a grinding noise, a sucking noise, a bubbling noise, et voila! The poop is now safely contained in the reservoir and off he goes to the next pile of poop.   You always know when they've been on the job.  All that's left of the poop is a perfumed soap bubble.

"Woof!  Clean up for me - I can't do it for you."

Poop isn't just stinky and annoying but it's dangerous too.  One gram can contain 23 million fecal E.coli bacteria and numerous deadly pathogens such as campylobacter that can be passed on to humans.  It's enough to make you stay indoors.

Despite all the signs and fines and free poop bags, many French dog owners continue to leave poop all over the place and we'll never know what goes on in the minds of those knuckle-headed dog owners.  In the meantime Uncle Jim and I and our friends all take our shoes off at the front door, just to be sure.

Thank goodness the French don't keep pet horses!


Friday, September 30, 2011

i Puffi at the Billa? Let's go! Andiamo!

A trip to the Billa grocery store in Ventimiglia these days is even more interesting than usual.

Along with cheap pasta, a huge variety of Italian cheeses and great reusable shopping bags, until the end of October there's added incentive to battle the crowds to shop there:  the i Puffi promotion.

i Puffi is Italian for the Smurfs and Billa has launched their i Puffi promotion to coincide with Italian opening of the new 3D Smurf movie. As it turns out, Italians are crazy about the Smurfs.  Who would have guessed?

Here's how the promotion works.  For every 10 that you spend in Billa, you get a packet of 5 i Puffi stickers depicting scenes from the movie.  For 3.90 (2.90 if you're a Billa fidelity card holder) you can buy a really nice hard cover album in which to stick your stickers.  
Of course I bought an album and started pasting in my i Puffi stickers last night and I had a grand time. I even learned a bit of Italian in the process.  I'll let you know when it's full.

In some of the packets, lucky shoppers will find special cards for prizes like  stuffed Smurfs or vouchers for store credit but the grand prize is what keeps me going back:  free shopping at Billa for an entire year.  I'd love to win that. 

Think of all that free pasta!



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keepin' it Clean, Part I. The Pacifier Man of Menton

In March of this year when the City of Ottawa announced their intention to cut household trash collection from once a week to once every two weeks I could almost see the flies cheering and beating their wings with glee.  What a happy and stinky time for all those hungry insects, insatiable raccoons, squirrels, rats, mice, cockroaches and other parasitic chow hounds that will join the flies in the stampede to the trash can buffet!

Here in the south of France, trash is collected six times a week and it takes no getting used to at all. How do they do it?  I don't really know but I'm glad they do.

In Menton, if you live in a house, every day you put your trash in your very own trash can and leave it by the side of the road.  If you live in a village with streets that are too narrow and steep for a trash truck to manage, you put your trash in a designated central place in a large communal receptacle that everyone shares.  Uncle Jim and I do this at our house in Monaco.  It's a good chance to mingle with the neighbours!

Along with the frequent household trash collection there is a huge fleet of trucks, boats, carts, hoses, receptacles and dedicated people who roam the streets and sea throughout the day who sweep, spray, empty, scrub, scrape, scoop, wipe and generally work hard to keep the streets and water for the most part, shining and bright.  The exceptions will be discussed in Keepin' it Clean Part II,  but I digress...

This morning as I was leaving the Marché U grocery store in the Port of Garavan, I met up with Jean-Pierre, one of Menton's most specialized street cleaners.

Jean Pierre roams the area around the port of Garavan between the sea and the wide pedestrian avenue on the Promenade du Soleil, collecting all the things that the messy people drop, throw, toss and discard. You always know when Jean Pierre is nearby because the street behind him is clean and by how he decorates his trash cart.  It's unmistakable.  For years now, Jean Pierre has been collecting all the tetines or pacifiers that he finds.  All of these colourful tetines form a pretty ring around his trash cart.  

On this beautiful sunny morning, I asked Jean Pierre how long he has been collecting the tetines.  "A few years," he replied and added that he finds more of them in the summer than the winter,  the summer being a prime time when tourists with babies sucking on tetines descend on Menton to swim on the beach.

 Judging by his cart, shops that sell new tetines in Menton are doing a booming business!


Friday, September 9, 2011

Wanted! Cats who eat Rats.

It seems that while Uncle Jim and I were away visiting Canada this summer, some four legged, beady-eyed pests were making trouble for Auntie in the garden in Menton.

When we got back to Menton this week, Celine told us that something was wrong with one of our mandarin orange trees.  It seems that the tree had a disease and on Thursday the gardener was going to take a closer look.  

It was obvious that something was wrong.  A lot of bark was missing on its upper branches and the gardener thought maybe the tree was diseased.  This was bad news.  

That mandarin tree was over 50 years old and was a star producer of tasty sweet, perfumed mandarins.  I use the little mandarins to make a delicious sorbet, which my Japanese friend said she dreamt about after eating it.  They also make excellent juice for Uncle Jim to sip in the morning while he reads the Financial Times.

When Thursday arrived, the gardener carefully slid between the trunks of the trees in our little citrus forest to poke around and get a closer look at the troubling situation.  After a few seconds, the branches shook a bit then stopped.  They shook a bit more and stopped.  After about one nail biting minute, the gardener popped out with the news:  our tree didn't have a disease at all.  It had rats!  That's right, rats were climbing up the tree and eating the bark! 

Supposedly this was quite common.  After the rats eat all the fruit they keep right on eating.  The bark, the gardener said, tastes sweet to them.

This seems to be Auntie's summer of vermin what with raccoons and squirrels stripping bare my grape vines and apple trees in Ottawa and moths making a snack out of my wool sweaters.

Nellie the Brave
Celine says that she often sees two French cats in the garden that she thinks belong to our neighbours.  There's a big fat white one and a small tabby that reminds her of Cat.  I guess they don't like to eat rats.

I think we need a Canadian cat on the scene to get the job done.  Like the Canadian Allies who came to help the French during WW2, the two French cats need our help!

Parsnip the Fearless
Maybe my friend Suzanne could send her kitties, Archie and Parsnip whom I understand are good mousers.  If they're busy maybe Liz can send her cat, Nellie, star of this summer's hit video, Nellie the Cat Plays with a Buzzing Cicada.  I think together they'd take care of the problem tout de suite!

Archie the Great
In the meantime, Celine went to Ventimiglia and bought a little "snack" for the rats.  The woman at the garden shop assured her that it would take care of the rat problem.

Paws crossed!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bingo Under the Stars

Imagine our excitement when my fave friend Sean and I learned that there was an outdoor drive-in bingo in Carp, a mere 20 minute drive from Ottawa.  Holy cow!  Why didn’t we know about this before now?  As you know, Auntie is a big fan of bingo.

I did a quick calculation.  Let's see, the drive-in bingo has been held on the Carp fairgrounds every Wednesday evening in July since 1954, a total of about 227 bingo games. Since Sean and I hadn't been born yet, I didn't drive until I was 18, Sean moved to Ottawa in the '80's, minus this, times that, divided by thingy and voila! We've missed our chance to play about 108 bingo games.  Clearly we have a lot of catching up to do.

Like any dedicated bingophile, off we raced to Carp to enjoy a beautiful summer evening of bingo under the stars.  In fact, the evening turned out to be even better than we thought it would be and Sean had a moment of fame too!

When we arrived at the bingo the lot was almost full.  After a bit of driving around, we snagged a spot near the back behind all the other participants who had the foresight to arrive early.  Who knew it would be so popular?  They did!

After parking in the weeds, we meandered our way through the grassy fairgrounds towards the front.  All around us were families sprinkled here and there, some on blankets, some sitting in circles on lawn chairs, talking and eating and generally enjoying the lovely summer's evening.  Kids were running around laughing and some families were barbequing behind their cars, their trunks packed with cold drinks and munchies.  It was like a big family picnic and adding to the festive country atmosphere there was a distinct aroma of horses coming from the stables near the edge of the fairgrounds.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beat the Heat

Last week in Ottawa, the temperature hit a sweltering 36.3˚ which was almost a record.  

Forests were spontaneously igniting, asphalt was melting, people were diving indoors to hide in air conditioned comfort and kids were splashing around in pools or running through sprinklers.

To cope with the heat, Auntie was making Popsicles as fast as I could eat them and as fast as the freezer could freeze them.  Uncle Jim was eating ice cream with chocolate sauce and washing it all down with iced espresso.

One furry critter just couldn't take it any more and passed out on our deck after gulping down some water from a dish that I leave out for visiting kitties.

I guess her den wasn't air conditioned, poor thing!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Timber! A Mighty Maple Comes Down

It was a warm and stormy night. 

At 9:30PM the doorbell rang.  "Who could be visiting at this hour?" I thought.  I was in my boudoir, wearing a peignoir, my hair in a chignon, sipping Pineau.  It was pouring rain and really windy.

Uncle Jim answered the door.  It was our next door neighbour, Eric.  He had bad news.  A huge limb from the 100 year old maple tree between our houses just landed on his roof with a big bang.  He wanted us to know about the limb in case it fell from his roof and on to our front porch or on us if we walked down our shared lane.  This was a definite possibility since there was so much wind and I think I saw pigs flying by.
Oops, that can't be right!

The next morning in the light of day we had a good look at the situation.  It was worse than we thought.   The fallen limb was hollow.  It had twisted in the strong wind and was now resting comfortably on Eric and Maya's roof.  That limb was wider than me!

Maya called the City and since the tree belonged to the City they took responsibility for it.  They would send someone on Monday to take a look at the tree and plan a strategy to remove the limb and see if the rest of the tree needed to be cut down.

Before Eric and Maya moved in a few years ago, the house belonged to the Devlins who had lived there since the 1960's.  Mr Devlin was always complaining to the city about the annoying tree and urged them to chop it down...
Sorry but you're evicted!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Say "I do" in Múnegu

On July 1, 2011, fireworks will be flying, and not just here in Canada on Canada Day where we will have the honour of hosting the newly minted royal couple, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

On the same day in a land far, far away, Monégasques will join together and heave a collective sigh of relief that their fearless leader and long time bachelor, HRH Prince Albert II of Monaco will finally take a bride!  

In the first of two ceremonies, the happy couple will say "I do" (perhaps in negu, the traditional Monégasque language) and begin their new life together...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Auntie Under Attack or The Day I Wish I'd Stayed in Bed

Well, normally Auntie is a lucky duck and not much bad happens unless you call it bad luck to burn a batch of cookies because I couldn't hear the timer ring because I was in the garden and got distracted and forgot all about them.  I guess this is bad luck for Uncle Jim since he didn't get to eat his cookies.

Well, last Tuesday was a bit different.....
The first ominous sign of bad things to come was in the kitchen when my fruit bowl was surrounded by fruit flies.  It took some effort to eliminate those but thanks to my handy electric fly zapper, I zapped them all with a few swats and a bit of cursing.  It was an unlucky day for those fruit flies.

Then on my morning power walk, an old enemy returned:  a really mean Red-Winged Blackbird who swoops down at my head whenever I pass by.  This started last year and now I always run past the same spot with my hands waving in the air like some lunatic or like Tippy Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's horror movie, The Birds.

Then, when I got home from my power walk, I went into the yard to stretch and there were 3 hungry squirrels, all pulling apples off of my apple tree.

After chasing them away I noticed that some racoons had arrived on the scene.  I think they were conspiring  with the squirrels, hoping for a few apples. 

The day continued to slide when that night my computer was hit by a massive virus that took it over and Uncle Jim had to bring it to a computer repair shop where they had to wipe the hard drive and reinstall it.  This left me for an entire week without a computer.  Boo Hoo!

Ah well, I've put all of that behind me and it seems my luck has returned to normal:  last night I dreamed that I won a trip for two to France!