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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tour de France Food and Drink stages 13-16

Over half way there now but this year's route continues to be a culinary challenge.  One dish we had to make was the very first thing Triple P learnt to cook: Coq au Vin.  Perhaps more typically associated with the Burgundy region, in fact it is pretty ubiquitous in France, where you just bung in the local wine and call it Coq au whatever the locals drink.  This was an ideal solution for Stage 13 which cut just south of the Beaujolais region and clipped the top of the Rhone.  

We first cooked this delicious concoction of chicken, bacon, onions, wine and mushrooms about forty five years ago, under the supervision of Triple P's father and a famous chef and it has been a regular ever since.  Although it is not exactly a delicate dish it has always been a hit with young ladies.

Stage 13

We used the recipe from one of our favourite cookbooks, Great Dishes of the World;  not that we really need to refer to the recipe.  This is not our original copy ,which disintegrated a few years ago.  Fortunately, we managed to get a pristine copy in the RNLI charity shop in Yarmouth two years ago.

The orange enamel casserole Triple P cooked it in was the original one we first used in 1969, which Triple P's father had bought in a shop in Perigueux for the then staggering price of £5.  Worth every penny, of course!

Anyway, the accompanying wine really had to come from the Northern Rhone.  The closest wine town to the route was Condrieu but as a very aromatic white this wouldn't really have gone with a dish cooked in red wine so we went just a little way south of the route for a St Joseph, which worked perfectly.  

Stage 14 saw us in the only full day in the Alps, in a sadly wine free region.  We looked about 25 miles north, however, and alighted on the town of Chambéry, home of our favourite vermouth, as we find the French one more delicate than the Italian versions.  They are also, these days, made in a rather less industrial way than their Italian cousins, using real herbs from the mountains rather than just flavourings.  Nice just with ice, it's also my preferred vermouth for Martinis.  In France you can also get Chamberryzette, a version deliciously infused with strawberries.  Girls like it.

Stage 14

After a heavy dinner the night before we just had some light Abondance cheese from Haut-Savoie which is actually closer to Stage 11 than Stage 14. This was the nicest cheese of the Tour so far.

Stage 15 was a quick whiz through Northern Provence with plenty of wine options on the way.  However, as the stage finished in the splendid Roman city (Nemausus) of Nimes (home of denim too, of course) then it had to be a Costières de Nîmes.  The vineyards here have been producing wine here for over two thousand years and the region was settled by many veterans of Caesar's campaigns in Egypt, which explains the symbol of a crocodile chained to a palm tree on  the local coat of arms.

Time for another lighter meal so just some typical Provencal tapenade and some picholine olives (no more cornichons for a while!).  Olive and anchovy tapenade was, appropriately, recorded in Roman times as olivarum conditurae.  Some nice crunchy picholine olives added another local touch.  These are, also, particularly good as the olive in a Martini.

Next time it's another big casserole!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The strange cast of the British Airways safety video

Agent Triple P spends a lot of his time flying around the world (or, more accurately at present he spends a lot of his time trying to avoid flying around the world) which is a problem as he hates flying. Not just finds it all a bit inconvenient and tiring. Hates it! We are terrified for almost every minute we are inside these hideous, claustrophobic tubes. 

We hate taking off ("Oh. it's the most exciting bit!" says our particular friend S from Vancouver - no it's not it's the bit when you are most likely to drop out the air and crash in flames), we hate landing but most of all we hate turbulence.  We grab the seat in front of us in terror.The amount of turbulence you experience in planes has gone up enormously since Triple P  was travelling a lot in the eighties and nineties. Turbulence then was a rare occurrence. Now it seems to be the norm. We hate it! We think that either the wings are going to fall off due to chronic metal fatigue or that without lift under the wings the plane will just drop. Turbulence is a sign that the magic that keeps aeroplanes in the air is wearing thin. Soon there won't be enough magic to go around (a weakening in the Force) and planes will all start to drop out of the air.

This brings us on to airline safety videos.  We are currently reading the amusing confessions of a couple of air hostesses and one of the (many) things that annoys them about passengers is the fact that they don't concentrate on safety briefings.  It seems that the greater part of air hostess training is not taken up with things like learning how to pour tea on the move but with safety training.  Ignoring this, because you have seen it all before, really gets to them, therefore.  On British Airways, which is the airline Triple P uses most, they have a strange animated video giving all the safety features of the aircraft and what to do in an emergency.   We must have seen this hundreds of times now but it's the cast of typical passengers that gets to us.

First up we have mop-haired boy.  Well, we assume it's a boy.  He is excitedly looking out of the window of the terminal with his toy rabbit, which he then stupidly drops, only to have an impossibly glamorous BA air hostess recover it for him.  Now some airlines are famous for their attractive cabin crew but BA isn't one of them.  We have, perhaps, seen two who are what we would describe as world class in thirty years of business travel.  We have seen twice that in a single Air China first class cabin.

Anyway, our next cast member is international business man.  Or is he?  We think he looks exactly like Fred Astaire so, as far as we are concerened he is international dancing star.

Next up it's the most notable passengers.  Yes, it's the lesbian fashion bloggers.  or, at least, that's what they look like to Triple P.  In the animation they are always eyeing each other up: this can't be an accident - they are just so gay!

Here impossibly glamorous stewardess points out that the Club Class toilets are free if they want to go inside and have a quick snog.  They're both eyeing her up now and wishing the loo was big enough for a Sapphic threesome.

Here they are dreaming of getting down to it properly when they get to New York.  We find these two characters strangely fascinating and someone really needs to produce a Hentai-style cartoon of what they get up to in their hotel room after they land - ideally involving the stewardess.

Finally, we discover that mop-haired boy is part of a family (where were you when he dropped his rabbit, eh?).  Not just any family, though, it's politically correct family.  Good grief they've even included a redhead! It doesn't matter, though, because the cabin pressure has dropped and you're all going to die!

Hot in the City

 The Embankment, this week

It's not much fun having to trudge up to the City, at the moment, with the temperature in the high twenties and even low thirties.  Britain is not equipped for this sort of weather!  No air conditioning on public transport and having to wear a wool suit, shirt and tie is not much fun on an underground train where the temperature is around 38 degrees.

Blackfriars, this week

The worst thing, of course, is that all the women are wearing flimsy skirts or dresses and even shorts.  That's just the office workers, not the tourists who this year are making tiny shorts distractingly ubiquitous.   There has been an attempt by the fashion industry to flog ankle length dresses this summer but Agent Triple P hasn't seen many even though, on the right figure, some of them are engagingly clingy.

Jaw dropping Eastern European example of tiny shorts at the station this week

We think that women who work in offices should be made to wear suits like men!  Currently the situation does not exactly lead to a situation of equality.  "I want to be treated the same as men in the workplace (fair enough) until it gets really hot and then I want to dress as if I am wandering around a Mediterranean fishing village."  Forget it, ladies!  However nice you look in your abbreviated garb you should be made to suffer like us!  That's real equality!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tour de France: Food and drink stages 8-12

Thumbs up for the Tour so far

It's something of an odd Tour de France route this year.  No Brittany, no Normandy and no Loire.  In fact western France has been pretty comprehensively ignored this year, apart from a couple of stages in the south west.  So, Agent Triple P's culinary Tour goes into Alsace and the Vosges for the next three stages which is about the only area of France he has never been to, in over fifty years of travelling there.  

Stages 8 and 9

Our lack of knowledge also applies to the wine and food of the region which is, not surprisingly given it's history, rather Germanic.  We struggle with understanding Alsatian and German wines, especially as regards how they are classified and organised regionally.  Neither seem very popular in a Britain now largely focussed on new World wines and, in fact, our local Tesco didn't stock any Alsatian wines.  This may also have something to do with the fact that these areas are less popular with British wine-loving tourists.  Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when we bought the wines to accompany this part of the Tour we had no idea what we were buying.

Stages 9 and 10

These were the first table wines of our vinous Tour, having left the beer and fizz behind in the first seven stages and we spread the two bottles we bought over three stages.  Both, at £9.99 and £10.49, were rather more than we usually pay for everyday drinking but, as ever, at this price range, the extra was worth it.  The Pinot Blanc from Calvet was quite floral but, oddly, also musky. We had low expectations of it but it was very good.  Sainsbury have just dropped it to £6.99 (annoyingly) and it's a bargain at that.  The Pinot Gris from Cave de Beblenheim had a lovely straw colour with an unusual smoky taste and rather oily texture. Both were very good but the Pinot Gris just edged it.  Splendid!

Now what food could we have to match these wines?  Well, it obviously had to be something regional, so we went for that prototypical Alsatian dish choucroute garni.  Not having been to the region and had it in situ, we just turned to one of the greatest cookbooks ever written, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. Child used the success of this book to launch her popular TV series in the US.  This absolute masterwork is the only French cookbook you will ever need and our copy is very well thumbed indeed.

Stages 8 to 10

Anyway, here is our version of the dish.  Not ever having had it before it was hard to tell if our approximation of it approached the real thing but it included most of the key ingredients: wine, pork, fat bacon, Frankfurters, smoked sausage, potato, apple, juniper berries and, of course sauerkraut.  The fact that it worked perfectly with both wines was probably the best way of telling that it was a success, we think.   Served with a good French, wholegrain mustard, of course, we made so much of it that it easily lasted three days!

Stage 11

So, leaving Alsace, the Tour took one of it's transfers for a stage from Besançon to Oyannax through the Jura.  We're never going to find a wine from the Jura in  a local supermarket, we thought, and we were right.  Fortunately, a locla wine shop actually had a wine from the Jura.  This was a direct hit too, as the Tour rote passed through Arbois, which is about 25 miles south-west of Besançon.  We can't say I have had a wine made from the poulsard grape before and it reminded us of some of the red Swiss wines we used to have in Zurich, which were not that distinctive and equally overpriced.  Still, you have to suffer for authenticity, sometimes!

Stage 11

To go with this we had some of the local cheese of the Jura, Comté, which was a typical semi-hard cows milk cheese from the region.  Frankly, we needed something a bit lighter after all that Choucroute and sausage and this, which came from Tesco's surprisingly good regional cheese selection, was nicely nutty.

Stage 12

Stage 12 started in the Beaujolais region and we managed another direct hit on the route for this stage as the peloton went over Mont Brouilly, on the slopes of which are grown the grapes for our favourite of the Beaujolais crus.  Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau, a brilliant way to sell a usually horrible wine, was always one of the better ones so we thought this was worth a go.  It was definitely Beaujolais, without taking the enamel off your teeth.  Back in the eighties Agent Triple P and his friends would always drink Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November and all the City wine bars would offer it.  This seems to be a habit that has almost died out now.

The race finished in Saint-Étienne, from which comes the rather extraordinarily named and interestingly shaped Jesus a l'ancienne sausage, one of the very best cured sausages we have ever had from anywhere.  It was perfectly set off by a good helping of cornichons.

Cornichons are not the same as the similarly sized gherkins sold in Britain.  The key difference is the vinegar they are in. Cornichons have a very light vinegar flavoured with tarragon and mustard seed.  You also usually get a few tiny silverskin onions in the jar too.  They are neither as sweet nor as sour as some of the equivalents you get in Britain and the US.  They really set off sliced cooked meats and pate perfectly.

Next we whizz across the Northern Rhone and into the Alps, before descending into Provence.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tour de France: Food and Drink stages 4-7

The road goes  ever on and on...terrible weather in the Tour so far

So, after it's English interlude (strangely, the sunniest bit of this year's race, so far), the Tour is back on French (and Belgian) soil for some Hell of the North conditions and a classic stage over the pavé which showed Vincenzo Nibali as a real contender this year.  Anyway, that's enough cycling nonsense! More importantly, what has Agent Triple P been eating and drinking to keep him going during his marathon TV sessions?  

Stage 4 saw us in French Flanders so a quick, cheap solution was a ten pack of Sainsbury's French Bière des Flandres, which wasn't offensive if rather lacking in character (like Chris Froome).  These cute little bottles did disappear very quickly, though.  It was rather like Pringles: once you pop you can't stop.  So, none left, unexpectedly.

Stage 5 saw us in Belgium and Ypres, a hundred years after the start of the Great War, as the Tour paid it's respects to the memory of the Western Front.

This Belgian Blonde had a lot more character than the Flanders beer but was still a bit thin on the finish. 6.3%, though.  It is made by Brasserie Du Bocq in Purnode, which is some sixty miles from the Belgian part of the route but we have to be flexible!

The name is quite evocative for Agent Triple P as it reminds us of a girl I met at a conference once.  It was held in a beach front hotel (very out of season) in one of those Dutch seaside towns which always seemed to be featured in sixties and seventies game show Jeux Sans Frontières.  The hallowed feet of the mellifluously named judges, Gennaro Olivieri and Guido Pancaldi, may have trod the very same corridors.

Noordwijk: very popular with nearly dead people

Anyway, after rather a lot of stodgy conference food, I felt I needed some exercise and so went out for a walk along the front, one afternoon.  This was a mistake, as the wind off the beach meant that all the skin on your face was instantly sandblasted off and you couldn't see anyway.  It was like a scene from Dune. After ten minutes of walking in a sandstorm (but at three degrees centigrade and minus five degrees windchill) I returned to the bar only to run into A, a Belgian girl and the very acceptable face of the European Union at the conference. She had been dogging my every step for three days.  She had just been appointed to a role in the EU covering a subject she knew absolutely nothing about (surely not?) but as I had been one of the speakers on it on the first morning she insisted on sitting next to me for the rest of the conference and bombarding me with inane questions.  Given she was a lovely blonde with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen I overcame my initial reluctance and rather unwillingly sat down with her (she was one of those women who just cannot stop talking).  Explaining my aborted attempt to get some exercise, she pointed out that the hotel had a very nice indoor pool and would I like to go for a swim with her?  When I pointed out that I hadn't brought my swimming things she pointed out that it was a clothing optional pool, so it didn't matter.

People in Britain tend to be rather rude about Belgium, saying it's boring and the people are dull.  Everyone laughs at the game "name ten Famous Belgians" because if you take out the fictional ones you can't get to ten.  Annoyed by this, Belgians have set up websites featuring famous Belgians, the irony being, of course, that no-one has heard of any of them. Anyway, A was a very fine Belgian blonde (although something of a screamer - not good when you are in a conference situation).  Our favourite Belgian Blonde is former Sports Illustrated model Ingrid Seynhaeve.  I like Belgium and it's also a very good place to fight your battles without wrecking your own country.

Anyway, what food to eat for Belgium?  Well not fancying moules-frites (I can't stand mussels unless they are buried in a paella) or even just patat met mayonaise (man cannot live by chips alone) wIcheated and had Ardennes Pâté even though the Ardennes is more World War 2 rather than World War 1.  Case solved.

Stage 6 was much easier on the drinks front as the stage finished in Reims (our English spelling of Rheims seems to have dropped out of favour of late).  Whatever, the French still pronounce it in such a way that it sounds like they are trying to clear their blocked sinuses.  Anyway, it gave us an excuse to drink something from the town that has been siting around our my collection for too long now: a bottle of Piper-Heidsick Rosé Sauvage.  This was very fruity but also slightly toasty.  Very small bubbles, which obviously is what caused it all to evaporate so quickly.

Our final stage, for this post, started in another of the three key Champagne towns: Épernay.   Agent Triple P has never been that fond of Moët which, due to clever marketing around sports events, the House has managed to make the world's default Champagne.   This really has been sitting in the wine cupboard for far too long but, again, disappeared quite rapidly.

Stage 7 travelled across Lorraine and into Nancy so the food choice was very easy: even though we wouldn't normally be seen dead eating quiche; it no longer still being the nineteen seventies.  Incidentally, decorating both our Quiche Lorraine and Ardennes Pâté plates are those delicious French gherkins: cornichons.  These taste completely different from English gherkins and we will look at them in more detail in our next post, as we pedal into the Alsace.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tour de France podium girls 2014: 1 Marie-Alexie Bazerque

Not today, Vincenzo!

It's that time of the year, once more, when we look at the Tour de France podium girls (or, more correctly hostesses). Pre-eminent among them are, of course, the yellow jersey girls. Now usually they waft around in chic anonymity but this year one of them has hit the headlines after, according to the media, snubbing yellow jersey holder Vincenzo Nibali by not giving him a kiss on the podium in Sheffield.

Marie-Alexie demonstrates another of the key skills of a Tour de France hostess

As the lady later explained, and was actually patently obvious to anyone but an internet "journalist", she adjusted his collar, which he mistook for the cue for the kiss just as she turned to collect his flowers, leaving the Italian stranded with nowhere to go.

All is remedied at the start the next day

Nibali (whose quick thinking has also been demonstrated on the road this year) saved the situation somewhat by kissing his yellow jersey lion instead. The lady, Marie-Alexie Bazerque, achieved instant notoriety but made it up to Nibali at the start the next day by giving him his missing kisses. Full marks to her!  Who wouldn't want to miss a kiss from the gorgeous Mlle Bazerque?

Getting herself ready for action

The hostesses do rather more than help cyclists put on jerseys, hand over flowers and give a quick peck on the cheek to those on the podium (or not!).  They help manage the departure village as well as the finish which is why there are four for each jersey so they can have two at the start and two on the podium.

Marie-Alexie (left)

They do public relations and prepare coffee and food as well as setting up stands and ensuring the cyclists sign souvenir jerseys for VIPs.  Or perhaps these jobs are merely justification for their existence.  One thing they are not allowed to do, of course, is fraternise with the riders and if they do they are swiftly sent home (with a good spanking, no doubt).  Such was the fate of Melanie Simmoneau when American rider George Hincapie tried to send her a message having been smitten on the podium after a 2003 Tour de France stage.  Hincapie had the last laugh, however, and married her the following year.

Fifty percent of the 2009 contingent with Mlle Bazerque second from the front

The main requirement of the hostesses is, of course is to look utterly lovely and coolly elegant while standing nest to sweaty, smelly cyclists at the end of a stage.  There are 24 girls altogether: four each for the yellow, green, polka dot, and white jerseys plus another four each to cover the stage winner and the most aggressive rider award.

Marie-Alexie (second from right) with the other yellow jersey girls in 2009

Many are students but they are usually students with modelling contracts and quite a few have been beauty queens too; up to and including Miss France.  Most of the girls are French but occasionally a non-French girls gets into the multi-coloured mix.

An impressive embonpoint from Mlle Bazerque at the Miss France competition in 2006

Marie-Alexie is from the mountainous Pyrénées area of France and went to scool in Toulouse. She entered her first adult beauty competition in October 2005 and was elected Miss Comminges-Pyrénées,  This qualified her to take part in the Miss France 2006 competiton in Cannes where she was a semi-finalist finishing in the top thirteen (out oif 45 contestants).

No its not a take-away menu!  With the other Southern French contestants on the Island of Reunion prior to the Miss France competition.  Marie-Alexie est numéro-sept

A willowy 5'9" tall she will be 29 later this month.  This is her seventh Tour de France as a yellow jersey girl.

A fresh-faced Marie-Alexie (second from right) at her first Tour de France in 2007