The Pâté Pot

A blade needed sharpening, and a few weeks back I found myself in a good old-fashioned French hardware shop.

While waiting for the skinny guy in overalls with morning-cognac breath to take the gory chain-saw details, a simple earthenware pâté pot caught my eye and I had a sudden fantasy of myself in a flowing floral dress.  There were no cobwebs in my hair or green aphids crawling on my skin.

I was surrounded by a lovingly well-behaved and appreciative family in the dappled sunny shade under the linden trees eating a neat little home-made pâté served with a cool and crisply acidic Cumberland jelly. There was heavy condensation on the crystal glasses filled with ice-cold sauterne. They all toasted my health.

The image was so perfect and powerful I bought the pot, and have been in a state of agitation ever since.

I know two actually-alive people who have made pâtés in their own kitchens (or so they claim) for me. Both (one rabbit and one foie gras) were delightful and delicious. Both were made in the winter months. Served with pickles and gooseberries, both were the centres of astonishing social events.

My trusty Larousse cookbook was a bit of a disappointment. The Country Foie Gras Pâté recipe is simplicity itself and calls for a huge (750g) goose liver which you chop up together with fresh fat belly of pork, pork suet and a piece of larding bacon. Truffles are optional—to be tossed in at will if you’re in the mood.

Apart from finding all the fatty ingredients, this seemed too straightforward, so I delved further into the dark and complex web world of liver pâtés.

I discovered to my horror that livers have veins that must be taken out. Somehow you have to butterfly-open the liver with your fingertips to present it with your herbs and spices. At some point you should soak it in salted water for a few hours to remove “impurities”. It is better to buy frozen rather than fresh foie gras, as it is “fresher”. After cooking you must press the concoction into a firm block using a precisely-cut piece of wood or cardboard and place weights on top. You must cool it for a day or two.

The “torchon method” is even more impressive and involves lengths of cheese cloth, twine, and several fridge hangings and alternative hot water / ice water dunkings.

The Larousse cookbook mentions strictly none of the above information. As the French Bible of cookery it is assumed that you have a genetic knowledge of the nitty-gritty underworld of pâté production.

My summertime pâté-idyll is fading fast in the actual sweltering heat. The family comes and goes–happily eating left-overs and drinking pop.

The pâté pot sits on the kitchen table gathering dust as I suck on an orange popsicle and consider it. I think there might be just the place for it in an upper kitchen cupboard somewhere north of the pasta machine.

 

 

Rage Over a Lost Franc

Well, there I was—happily home from a place where supermarkets have not yet been invented—and I was buying one of everything.

My shopping bags were filled with delicious Swiss specialities that I had been missing—soft squishy buns, cervelas, tubes of Cenovis, mustard and mayonnaise. There were delicious fera rissoles, just-ripe avocados, and fresh herbs sprouting perkily from little pots.

I had my store card and my scanner and merrily fought (and won) a mental culinary battle back to the normality of self-selective eating.

There were no smoked pig lungs, no canned crickets, no sheep heads, no 100-year-old eggs. It was glorious.

My bags full of inventive, delicious, unrelated items – I was too freshly home to think in terms of actual meals – I was humming to myself and inserting my card into the check-out machine when an orange-bloused lady hauled me off for a “random check”.

Food reveries turned to mental compost. Guilt and fear bloomed like the blue on the Roquefort cheese chunk. Had I remembered to scan that bottle of truffle oil? Or that huge bag of dried morels?

Anxiety and blood-pressure mounted as the two employees chatted happily and rescanned my now-dangerous almost-possessions. Was I about to become one of those poor innocent people forever banned from Swiss supermarkets?

No. I passed with flying colours (I had scanned the oil bottle twice), and strode haughtily off with my treasures and retail freedom righteously intact.

That was when I discovered that I had the wrong caddy. The franc deposit was no longer in the slot. They had pulled the old bait-and-switch.

Back up to the check-out arena, I found the employee suspects and explained the loss of my franc-primed trolley.  They didn’t have it, and told me calmly (condescendingly?) what had happened: I had been robbed by “gypsies”.  (In the Vallée du Giffre we call them “Bohemians” which seems much more dashing.)

Apparently, at crowded times they come to the supermarkets and, being gypsies, are attracted by gold. Well, silver in this case. And while a  person is pondering (possibly with eyes closed) whether to choose the lemon or strawberry tarts they place your bags of scanned, packed groceries into a moneyless trolley and make a speedy get-away with the cash.

I don’t know if any forensic connection has been made between the theft of my franc and the Big Maple Leaf coin robbery, but they bear curious similarities. The Berlin robbers took the 100-kg pure gold Canadian coin (53 cm diameter and 3 cm thick and worth about $4,000,000) from a museum showcase last month. They used a sledgehammer, then put the coin into a wheelbarrow to make their get-away.

This is obviously a serial-robbery situation. A copy-cat crime is also a possibility. In any case, the point of the matter is, you cannot lend anything to anybody. You take your eyes off it for one second and it’s gone.

 

Salt: Worth its Weight in Gold

Well, the conversation took place over the regular Tuesday lunch of macaroni and (cheddar) cheese. As we put a grind of pretty pink rock salt on top, the question of salt came up (again).

In our house there is an on-going polemic about the reality of salt. The scientific contingent is adamant that salt is simply NaCl—preferably from the Swiss salt mines of Bex. And that is that.

The rest of us disagree. We know that licking the Himalayan rock-salt lamp in the living room is a completely different experience from dipping your wet finger into the kitchen salt pot.

And now I have proof. A recent cookbook defines the developed world’s three types of salt—common table, kosher, and sea—and proclaims them to be very different in taste, texture and use.

Conversation then turned to the iodine content of normal table salt.

The mention of iodine brought up the subject of hypothyroidism and goiters and my dining companion (10 years old) asked if I had ever seen pictures of people with goiters. I said, of course! I have a lovely one of Geneva market ladies in the 19th century in my book.

The mention of “my” book, brought about dessert amnesia, and we headed upstairs in search of the living proof that grandma wasn’t the big fat liar that she is usually (unfairly) made out to be, but is, instead, a real living rock and roll “écrivaine”.

The chapter on medicine was found, as was the picture. It was observed that the ladies looked quite rich so should have been able to afford salt. It was pointed out that iodine, not salt, was the problem. It was then gigglingly observed that the ladies looked like they had two sets of breasts.

One of my few remaining copies of Ils ont découvert Genève was dedicated to my new fan and she took it with her. In the car back to school she abandoned her usual heap of Lucky Luke and Yoko Tsuno reading material and concentrated on Chapter 1 – Le Lac. Out loud, I was regaled with my very own true facts about the origins of the names Geneva and Leman.  After the 20-minute drive, I was heartily congratulated on my newly-discovered brilliance and expertise.

The book itself was a huge failure and a roaring success. It is a segment of a much larger (unpublished) work and was brought out as a commercial anniversary present for the “big M” and distributed throughout the canton of Geneva. You just might have it on your bookshelf. It took years of work, and ended in disappointment and frustration.

Under-rated and none-paid, Travellers to Geneva[1] has been more or less forgotten. But today it was excitingly revived, hailed and admired.

Nothing you do is worth nothing. Not even a pinch of salt.

 

 

 

 

[1] Published by Editions Tricorne, Genève 2009. (In English: Travellers to Geneva. Part 1 Sensations and Reflections.)

How the Drone Killed the Postcard

Down in the bomb shelter there is a rusty tin biscuit box that is full of postcards. They were collected and saved when I was a child living in small Ontario villages. They were sent from around the world – well, mainly from holiday corners of Britain and “The Continent.” Every move I’ve made, that tin box has moved with me.

Our own parson-poor holidays were always taken for four weeks in the searing summer heat. They were mile-full rides across the country from coast to coast. Cloth diapers were jammed into the little triangular side windows to dry in the car-speed. We camped in a huge and heavy canvas tent. There was porridge for breakfast and our wine was grape kool-aid.

We did, though, send postcards.

Still today, I occasionally buy old postcards at the Geneva flea-market and unravel the spidery handwriting with pleasure: formal invitations, formal thank-yous, formal salutations. They are little pastel-coloured hands waving from the past.

Suddenly, though, postcard quests are not being met with success.

In Tranquebar, the cards were so cracked, curled and dirty that not even the mercurial manager could take rupees for them and gave me a few for free.

In Ubud, the former postcard capital of the world, postcards had to be mined like precious gems at twee stationery shops.

In Xi’an, at the main airport post-office, there was a selection of cards featuring hybrids of fat babies and Micky Mouse. Not a terracotta warrior or plump horse in sight.

At Wat Pho, the postcard racks were empty. And here on the Andaman Sea, the hotel offers postcard views of itself. Here we step into serious postcard total-loser territory.

Where are the great images – the sunrises, silhouettes on a crescent moon-lit beach, the branches of fuchsia bougainvillea draping impossibly over a wine-dark sea? All those exciting things that we never see with our own amateur eyes?

The clientele here at this eco-lodge are a new breed of adventurers; they possibly have never licked a stamp. They are all tattooed to prove their individuality. They spend their time thumbing their little screens. They sport pairs of outsized non-jiggly breasts with heads and skinny legs attached. They do not sketch, paint, or write. Very few read.

Yesterday, a cool American dude blew in with his chick and his drone. Inside the veranda filled with real people on lounge chairs he ordered a double gin and tonic and launched his millennial man-toy.

Not wanting my eyes poked out, I was gathering up my affairs to leave as I watched the girl lower herself into the infinity pool and gaze through bug-eyed sunglasses over the sea as the drone circled her, filming her, before returning to its master.

The postcard is definitely out, but once drones completely take over the world I do hope they do not take pictures of themselves, but nostalgically reinvent the paper postcard, take lovely and unusual pictures, and send them to each other. By drone, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baby Farm in the Sky

No one writes about business class travel except business people – Richard Quest (CNN) for example, considers it quite a grunt—speed, efficiency, and a secure computer connection being the main ingredients of a good flight.

Well, roll over business people, there is a more mature crowd moving in. Those of us who have paid top bucks for economy tickets all our working lives and have amassed an Everest of flier miles are taking over. We call ourselves the Hot Rolled Towel Generation.

And we deserve it. Bum knees, rotten eyesight, sore backs, occasional disorientation, and the imperative of sleeping lying flat all medically indicate that we are no longer fit for slum class. Who wants a rather rotund, occasionally drooling, rheumy-eyed old geezer sitting beside them? And the worst: he might even start telling stories about how things used to be—better/worse/different.

Shakespeare, as usual, was right. In his “All the world’s a stage” speech, the last stage of human development circles back to the first, and the old man becomes a baby again. Never has this been truer than on a good 10-hour business class flight.

You are cocooned like a papoose in a plastic cubicle. You are back in a roomy womb. (It is the same idea in coach class, but there it is more like being triplets.)  You are nurtured, cleaned, and looked after.

The impeccably groomed young lady comes and kneels in front of you (just like a kindergarten teacher), addresses you by name, and in a clear voice that you can actually hear assures you that she is your personal slave for the duration of the flight. You can eat and drink what you want, when you want. They give you chocolates and champagne and green tea and then ask if you would like more.

When you lower your mechanical seat into sleeping position you can snore, snort, drool, burp and fart to your heart’s content inside the comforting roar of the jets. Under the light-weight duvet, with your reading light adjusted just-so, you could even be forgiven for sucking your thumb.

Your clothes becomes crinkled, spotty and messy if you have chosen not to change into the complimentary pyjamas. Turbulence can result in a surprising little vomit in the handy vomit bag. You are not scolded, but comforted and protected. Macho is out. Maternal is in.

The washrooms are close-by, smell like roses, and usually empty. The toilet paper is constantly folded into peak ends for easy roll-offs. There is a button to call a cabin crew member in case of washroom emergencies.

Upon landing, you re-enter the cold cruel world. Your time of no-control, no-responsibility is over. You are heartlessly thrown back into the earthly morass of immigration line-ups, taxi swindles, and stultifying heat. You wonder where your next meal is coming from.

Again, you become a player in the Shakespeare monologue as you turn into the (tourist) soldier “full of strange oaths … sudden and quick in quarrel.”

The flight is over.

 

 

 

 

Through the Rösti Looking Glass

Just as the French-speaking Swiss and the German-speaking Swiss have their differing languages, priorities, and cultures so, too, do their mountains.

A few days back, before leaving for a long-planned family wedding in Davos, I paid a rare visit to William, my hairdresser.  He gave me a new hair-style, cut me some bangs, and I was all set.

The Davos church was Roman Catholic with tastefully-placed saints and statues; the pipe organ music flew out of the loft and bounced off the walls; the priest reminded us of the miracle of turning water into wine—the point being that one mustn’t drink alone. I think. The crowd was mostly young, freshly coiffed, clean, and hip.

The bride choked up with emotion as she approached her grinning groom and everyone had a specially-wrapped tissue in which to shed their tears of happiness. I dropped a tear or two, but then came to my senses and realized that bride was far too young, beautiful, and thin to cry over.

The entire wedding party boarded a little funicular up to a charming Art Nouveau hotel and drank champagne and ate canapés to while away the late afternoon.  There was dancing and family films and speeches and too-loud music and a lovely old nonna (grandmother of the bride) who held my hand and showed me her hearing-aid. I lost an earring.

We had a lovely time, and all around us the magic mountains of Davos stood guard—the Jakobshorn, the Pischa, the Strela—cold, quiet, still, sedate and steady.

Returning home mountain-struck, we set out immediately to seek comfort on our local mountain just over the border in France.

Now there are many similarities between the two places.  For example, Shack and Schatzalp both begin with an “s”.  Both the alpine farmhouse and the famous sanatorium were built in exactly the same year. Both face full south and have grand views of the Alps.

The Shack is slightly superior, perhaps, as there is a small television in the chimney corner.

But after that it all goes downhill. A terrible tempest a few days back topped, uprooted, snapped off hundreds of trees in the valley. Crawling through and around two huge pines on the way up to the Shack, we arrived, pants be-holed, arms bloody, tear tracks through the face dirt, to find a perky pine with a bad attitude resting on the roof.

Cables and ropes and winches and chains and chainsaws combined with extraordinary skill, strength, and pithy Swiss-German vocabulary to solve the problem. My wedding hair-do lost its bounce, my new bangs were poking me in the eyeballs, and there was not an earring in sight.

No white wine to be found in the evening, the pink fondue was invented.

Mont Blanc looked down on all of this and smiled. This morning she put on her hat as she always does when bad weather is coming.

But then, she is a different sort of mountain.

 

 

 

 

Ultimate Confusion

In these confusing times when true facts are as rare as hens’ teeth and everything seems to be going backwards, I am suddenly confronted with the blossoming of a new commercial celebration: International Women’s Day.

Begun as International Working Women’s Day in 1917 in Russia, it grew out of various brave demonstrations in many countries led by socialist labour movements striving to stop the degrading exploitation of female factory workers. This got broadened into the suffrage movement which (eventually) worked. Even in Switzerland.

In 1977 the U.N. voted March 8th as the International Day of Women’s Rights. It is still an official national holiday in several ex-communist countries. My favourites are Nepal and China where it is a women-only holiday.

The day has laudable historic credentials, but it is being side-swiped and undermined in many alarming ways.

Yesterday our Swiss daily, Le Temps, put out a special edition “dedicated to women”.  Women associated with the Geneva School of Art and Design put together the paper and posted 52 photos of themselves and other important Swiss ladies. There were laudable interviews and analyses of successful women taking themselves and their roles seriously.

There were accounts of films by women, soccer by women, and (on the recipe page) the astute observation that women really can appreciate the finesse and romanticism of red wines—especially the gentle Swiss pinot noir.

Apart from the date being shifted to the 6th (I cynically attribute this to the fact that Monday is traditionally a “light” news day and so less important than the real day, Wednesday, when something more interesting might actually be happening) the full-page ads give us some very stale—possible rancid—food for thought.

The first is for a top-end Swiss watch. It features the chest of a famous American model in a low black bathing suit foxily biting the thumb of a boxing glove. The watch is diamond-studded and is claimed to have been especially created for dominant women.

The second ad lures us to the tropical island of Mauritius and invites us to live timelessly by buying an exclusive luxurious golfing property. And the third (on the back page) is a spread of three pale and ethereal young women’s faces. It offers a Japanese anti-ageing cream that lifts and firms us into the future.

Prices are not mentioned in this lure of diamonds, paradise villas, and everlasting youth. Women’s wishes, one presumes, are far beyond the crass vulgarity of money.

For the more modest consumer, the local supermarket is offering vaguely funereal floral arrangements (does one buy them for oneself?) and the local drug store has 40% off a Swiss wrinkle reduction cream (would you dare buy some for your mother?)

Sigh. It’s so hard to know how to celebrate properly.

Oh yes. I almost forgot. There was one page of “real” news (the election in the Valais) in Monday’s feminine Le Temps. Both articles were written by a man.

The Secret Feast

Several important Canadian celebrations have been hijacked into Swiss public life over the past few decades. When I came to Switzerland in the late 1970s, for example, neither Valentine’s Day nor Hallowe’en existed.

Culturally craving a jack o’ lantern one year, I paid a fortune to buy an entire thick-shelled eating pumpkin. It weighed about 10 kg and was placed in the baby stroller to be wheeled home.  I do not recall what I did with the baby.

Curious about this unusual purchase, the farmer’s wife asked what I was going to do with the huge pumpkin.  When I described the necessity of carving an ugly face, placing a candle inside, and the banishing of evil spirits I’m sure word went around that a wasteful witch from the New World had taken up extremely dubious residence in the Geneva countryside.

Luckily, terrorism did not exist back then.

Similarly, if you wished for a spot of cheap-and-cheerful Valentine’s Day sentiment you had to cut your own pink hearts from construction paper as you had done as a child, and have found, somewhere, some unrelated chocolate hearts wrapped in red tin-foil to glue onto them.

Now both these events have been taken care of by a healthier more worldly-wise agricultural economic outlook, and these days the farmer’s barn (much expanded) has picturesque hay wagons full of different-sized “Jack-O-Lanterns” in the fall, and on February 14th is open for a full 12 hours of frenzied bouquet-selling.  The farmer’s wife has retired.

There are, however, a few small intimate events that have not yet been taken over by the entire global economy, and one of them has been celebrated in our house today – the great day of pancakes—Pancake Day!

Just as Pancake Day is not to be confused on any level with Mardi Gras (that they occur on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a startling coincidence), the Canadian pancake is not be confused on any level with the French “crêpe.”

A pancake is fat and robust not thin and ephemeral. It is short and stout and has miraculous little holes on one side that are to be filled with butter and maple syrup and a squeeze of lemon.

A pancake can never be eaten with leeks or ham. It cannot be folded, it has to be rolled. Like a golden bullet casing, it is more than itself. It is a concept.

When we were growing up, our mother made pancakes exclusively on Pancake Day. It was glorious. The great black cast-iron frying pan was cleared of its bacon dripping and heated. The pancakes I recall as delightfully slightly rubbery, and the melted margarine and golden corn syrup were runny and decadently delicious. The squeeze of an orange wedge turned it all into an event of grace and distinction—far above ordinary fare.

In our society of affluence and over-abundance it is not so easy to re-create the magic of a simple pancake. It is, however, important to try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robotic Underpants and other matters

A few weeks back, I read an article about how a third of accidents that happen to the over-60 crowd are due to falls brought on by lack of balance. To remedy this, Yoga and/or Tai Chi were highly recommended.

I have started Tai Chi. Well, I ordered the book (Classical Yang Style) and am working on the basic stance. The big fat tome is open to the correct page and placed in a Zen manner on the corner of the kitchen table. Every time I pass, I hold the Ma Bu (Horse Stance) pose for 20 seconds.

After just a few short days, I have quickly learned to not pass that particular corner of the table anymore and I am instead busy working on my inner yin and yang.

Lying flat on the living room sofa, breathing properly, I have just read three weeks’ worth of newspapers, and before dozing off, made the most remarkable discoveries.

For example, the “gig economy” was mentioned twice. I had somehow missed this expression. It means that no one has a proper job anymore. You just work short gigs (driving cars and making deliveries or videos seem to be the most popular choices) and then carry on with living. Legal clarity has resulted in the possibility that even zero-hour contract workers could have the right to vacation pay, daily work breaks, and redundancy payments.

This granted me a huge epiphany moment which solved the recent media flap about whether robots should pay taxes. Well, they’re going to HAVE to, as everyone else is going to be getting money for taking tea-breaks while not working.

Then there was the article about not showering as it seems that this daily ritual just wrecks your microbiome. It apparently takes about six months to completely give up this bad habit, but is well worth it as you save water and can avoid all those dastardly beauty products that are polluting the planet. Your bacteria proliferates and is extremely happy.

Obviously the man who is promoting this (a senior editor at The Atlantic) has not recently had to look after a one-year-old with a gastro. Anyone who has ever been covered with curdled milk vomit combined with liquid yellow poop will never, ever, turn their backs on a good hot shower with bubbles and perfume galore.

However, the very best item was the London Design Museum’s recent show which included a military invention to help soldiers carrying heavy loads in the battlefield: power underpants. Little sensor-packed pods and miniature motors pull strings in the fabric that give you extra support and help in sitting down or standing up. This makes so much sense, I’m sure it was a closely-guarded military secret for many decades before finally being leaked to the general public.

I am asking for a pair for my next birthday, and only then will move around to the deserted Tai Chi corner of my kitchen table and attempt stance two, Deng Shan Bu.

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s Inner Gandhi

I have just visited the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and have made the startling discovery that Mahatma (The Great Soul) Gandhi and Donald (Make America Great Again!) Trump are political soul-mates. I hope you are reading this, Mr President, as I doubt that many people will have noticed your inner Gandhi.

It came to me as I was standing in front of a black and white photo of Gandhi wearing a loincloth seated at a spinning wheel. A master of media imagery, his message was clear – Indians must spin and weave their own cloth in the traditional manner. Imported British cloth must be boycotted.

Foreigners Out! Foreign Products Out! Make India Great!

Imagine if, some 85 years later, there had been a video clip (was there?) of candidate Trump in his red cap and a pair of worker’s overalls on a Ford assembly line in Michigan helping a robot mount an engine in the latest model of a (red) Ford Mustang. Every guy in the whole of the US would have voted for him (did they?).

Gandhi, vastly popular, devoted the last 30 years of his life to achieving Indian Independence. His thoughts, his dreams, his aspirations, his daily life became a purposefully open book. He slept little, rose at 3:30 a.m. and then filled the rest of the night with letter writing. This was followed by days of interviews, meetings, hunger strikes, long marches, spells in jail, and speeches. He was always doing something to maintain and increase attention and contact.

The shining example of mediatic brilliance was Gandhi’s wearing his loin-cloth to visit England in 1931. This skinny, ugly, old guy with a towel wrapped around his privates was much-criticised for his lack of disrespect to the king. Bald and toothless, he must have been cold as he cheerfully commented: “The king wears enough clothes for both of us.”

Sound familiar? A popular reality TV show? The 3 a.m. Tweets? The odd hair? The shambolic suits and clown ties? The unnaturally white 70-year old teeth? Criticising the establishment? The pre-fuss about the possibility of the Ugly American meeting Her Majesty?

Just as Gandhi was a product of India, so Donald is a product of America. Gandhi was a cliché of poverty. Trump is a cliché of wealth. They are the two extremities of our pretend/wished-for/normal middle-class, middle-of-the-road world; and as such they both disturb.

Gandhi was outrageous taking on the British Empire; just as Trump is outrageous taking on the world. Gandhi’s dream that the untouchable/Dalit caste be abolished did not happen. Similarly, Trump’s promise that every American worker will have job in America making products for Americans will not be filled.

However, Gandhi’s wish for the independence of India did come about, and in the initial act—the 1947 partition—it is estimated that up to 2,000,000 people died in the religious genocide that followed and 14,000,000 people were displaced.

So, Mr President, living alone in your great white elephant ashram in Washington, be very careful what you wish for.