They Eat Thistles for Christmas

Well, shopping this morning was a complete nightmare. This was because I got there too early.

It was not my usual shopping crowd—the single women, sometimes men, whizzing around with their self-scanning devices, with a purposeful glint in their eye, placing items surely and steadily in the jaws of their organized shopping bags in preparation for an instant departure to other, better, places.

No these were seriously old people. Not normally old like us, but ancient.

It seems that most of them had forgotten they had ever been to a supermarket before. They also forgot their shopping trollies and much merriment was had by placing items in strangers’ baskets. They worked the store in couples and often lost each other in the aisles. Most of them had forgotten how the fruit and vegetable weighing machine worked and then stuck the ticket onto the wrong item. I saw one old gentleman take off his hat in the yoghurt section and leave it there.

As they were the vintage, traditional crowd, many of them were buying their Christmas cardoons—not the prepared-for-wimps sort in the glass jars, but the real sort full of strange dye and nasty prickles. All these old folks are now doing culinary battle with this most obstreperous of vegetables. Only the quince, I feel, is a plant that has a greater reluctance be eaten.

The cardoon is brother to the artichoke and it originates from the south of France. Its first seeds came north to Geneva in 1685 with the Protestants fleeing persecution at home.

Our Thorny Silver Cardoon of Plainpalais is difficult to handle. The idea of using a soft brush to remove the thorns and white outer skin is outrageous. You need gardening gloves, a good Japanese housewife’s kitchen knife and lots of verve. If you touch the stem with your bare hands, your skin turns black.

Here is the nec plus ultra recipe for Cardoons in Cream[1] by Mme Joseph Dumonthay of Geneva.

Tip! First find your gardening gloves.

  • Prepare your spiny cardoon by removing thorns and outer skin.
  • Cut into pieces that you immediately soak in 2l of cold water mixed with 2tbls of flour.
  • To cook, prepare the same as above, adding salt and 1dcl of milk.
  • Add cardoon pieces when the water boils and boil for 30-40 min. Drain.
  • In shallow oven-proof dish place your cooked cardoon pieces cut quite small. (Max 2 layers.)
  • Sprinkle generously with grated parmesan or gruyere cheese. Pour over lots of fresh cream and top with pats of butter.
  • Bake at the top of a very hot oven 10-20 min until golden. The cream must not boil.
  • Serve hot.

So, this one’s for you, my shopping companions of this morning. Thank you all for being the living memory of old Geneva. Who cares where your hat is, when you’re looking at a cardoon gratin for supper?

 

 [1] Revue du Vieux Genève, 1978. Pierre Blondin, Les fameux cardons genevois, pp 66-67.

Photo:  Yvonne Borloz

Solar Panel Politics

It is not easy to get solar panels onto your Geneva village house roof. In fact, so far it has been elusive and coincided perfectly with the family motto (“Pay More, Get Less!”): we have paid money and our roof is buck-naked.

It all began in the spring with a telemarketing phone call. A well-spoken person asked to speak to the man of the house, and as he pronounced the family name correctly and there were no conversations buzzing in the background, I was fooled into believing he was someone real. The next thing I knew, he was sitting at the kitchen table with binders full of illustrated solar information.

He was not quite the real McCoy, of course, and in serious solar panel buying, you should contact at least three people on the Official Swiss Solar Panel List. (Our telemarketing man’s company did not feature.)  Three more men came and explained their wares.

Surprisingly, it turned out that our village is “classified” – which means that it contains architectural jewels that have to be protected from ugly technology. I am not sure where they are located, except for the one old farmhouse whose roof is caving in and things are growing out of at the same time. This, I agree, is not solar panel material.

Anyway, for the rest of us, we need permission from the village mayor to have solar panels placed on our roofs. And for this quest to be successful care, precision and money are essential. First of all you have to give your solar panel company CHF 1’000.00 to open a file. Then you have to have your house (roof) resurveyed to make sure that it has not expanded or contracted since it was first built. This costs another CHF 1’500.00

And then you wait. This, more than half a year later, is our current stage.

Many new buildings (such as the apartment monstrosity across the road built in post-modern 21st-century Gulag-style) feature a small strip of solar panels on their roofs. This is little more than decoration to show the sustainable, durable, ecological nature of the building project. They do very little on a practical level.

What one needs is a correctly-exposed roof covered with photovoltaic panels that can produce enough electricity for all domestic needs. At the moment, excess energy is fed back into the Geneva electricity grid, but in the near future when Elon Musk’s huge batteries become affordable, all the energy will go into in these storage batteries and the system becomes integrated and independent.

Very simply, we will get all our electricity from light.

According to Leonardo DiCaprio, President Obama, and the Pope, (Before the Flood) if ALL buildings do this and ALL countries stop burning fossil fuels we MIGHT be able to draw back from the edge of the natural holocaust that has already begun.

We will all be judged by what we leave behind, and what I would really like to leave behind is a roof-full of solar panels.

The One-Star Restaurant Operatic Extravaganza

I’ve only been to three Michelin-starred restaurants in my life, and I didn’t pay for any of them.

The first one was in the south of France some 40 years ago. After having eaten one of everything, we placed the (possibly already full) credit card in a tastefully hollowed-out ancient book. To this day, the amount has never apeared on our credit card statement. The second one doesn’t really count, as I had booked the wrong restaurant and I don’t want to talk about it. And then there was last night in Geneva.

It was a gift, and in many ways it truly was. I saw and encountered several things that were entirely without precedent. It was sort of Cirque de Soleil on the table cloth.

The lights were dim, the pillows were plumped, the Christmas wooden soldier theme tastefully arranged and the spectacle was about to begin.

restaurant-dining-restaurant-bayview-by-michel-roth-hotel-president-wilson-a-luxury-collection-hotel-geneva-2We popped in the chou pastry tickle-your-mouths. We delved under the foam of the oceanic pre-starter to find fishy bits and chestnuts. I think.

The butter girl passed with three different flavours (regular, vanilla, and pepper) and then my main starter arrived. It was an artfully-created miniature village built with bits of fig on a round slice of foie gras. In the middle there was a fig-jam pond. The little houses had real golden roofs. There was a wall of paper-thin pink wafer that stood up, ineffectually protecting the little hamlet from the wicked fork and knife that were about to descend.

The nice young man came to brush up the crumbs from my freshly-baked brioche, and then the second starter arrived. It featured porcini mushrooms in all their possible forms. There are, perhaps, reasons why Mövenpick does not produce industrial mushroom ice-cream.

Before the main course the knife girl came around with a set of six knives. You had to choose your handle colour. I chose shocking pink to delicately cut my venison. But the real treat was the chef’s speciality—a hallucination-in-a-glass called cappuccino. It was a mixture of potatoes and white truffles with black truffle crumbs sprinkled on top.

The nice young man gently prised the empty cup out of my fist and promised more…

The first dessert (called “a moment of sweetness”) was rather a shock, as there was a slice of raw fruit involved. This was more than made up for, however, by the decomposed miniature lemon tarts. And the main dessert was a magnificent jellied puddle of orange tastefully holding together a slice of apple on a biscuit.

After the chocolates and the fruit jellies, we finally ended the evening back at home watching the Japanese sumo championships on TV—which seemed especially fascinating and relevant after having eaten an entire village on my plate.

The gargantuan worlds of ritual and magic are now behind us and we have landed softly back into our Geneva-countryside world of bread and jam, baked squash, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

I have, though, put gold foil on my shopping list.

Forget the Mindfulness Massage

I hate massages, so one good thing about living in the Swiss countryside is that this is not considered a social or mental shortcoming. However, having recently been in a town where every second person on the street offers you a massage (the other half offers transport) I eventually got snared.

Now this wasn’t your normally nasty sandy beach massage, or your cheap and cheerful downtown flea-pit massage. It took place in a respectable spa on the top of a windy ridge in central Bali.

massagemindfulnessThe oils and lotions were smartly-packaged and you could choose your flavour. The delicate jasmine body oil was a far cry from an extremely unpleasant experience some years back involving a tar-like product from a bucket that was an indelible mixture of shoe polish and petroleum jelly.

The sarong on the massage table was clean, and the subtly-muscled staff was dressed in matching business-like polo shirts. Before beginning, you had to fill out an official form on a clip-board indicating the strength of massage desired, and pointing out any areas that needed special attention. You naturally slip into your “fooling the doctor” mode and give nothing away.

We chose the Intuitive Heart Massage during which you are encouraged to drift off into a slumber-like state of peaceful bliss for 90 minutes, and to awake refreshed and reinvigorated. (My sister has since pointed out that they only give heart massages to dead people such as Princess Diana in the Paris tunnel.)

It started badly. As the nice young lady was wiping invisible specks of dust off the soles of my feet, my tickle-reflex kicked in. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, but the next 89 minutes were doomed.

She intuitively started with my bad knee finding all the most painful acupuncture points. The Swedish-style hammering did not help. Her intuition held, and she moved right along to my bad back and turned her arms into rolling pins.

A good massage certainly takes your mind off things outside your skin. You become a ball of anticipation worrying about what painful thing is going to happen next. You mull over the possibility of actually dying on the massage table. You try to think Zen thoughts as the thunder crashes and the rain pours down – such as why you didn’t bring an umbrella, or why you didn’t wear your lucky purple underpants, or which is worse—here or at the dentist’s? You try to breathe calmly and quietly without gasping.

Leaving the massage table in a state of euphoria and mental confusion, you have to teach yourself to walk again.

As you sip your post-massage organic ginger tea, you notice that the people around you seem bouncy and liberated. They have probably slept through their dreamy massages and remembered their umbrellas. Perhaps they have even had the post-massage Singing Bowl Healing Vibration 30-minute treatment which sooths and heals.

They probably even love massages.

BIG Trouble

The Geneva jail is hideously overcrowded, and I have a theory that this has to do with many poor innocent people who are unaware of Geneva’s strict Sunday rules. In our village, for example, we are periodically reminded of them via a perky newsletter.

As a public service/stay-out-of-jail announcement here is a brief summary of the most important forbidden things.

First of all, shops are shut on Sundays. In our village we have a small rogue corner store that opens on Sunday mornings and sells delicious fresh bread along with everything else. So far it hasn’t been busted, but I figure it’s only a matter of one rotten tomato and of time.

Then there is the great concept of public tranquillity. Sundays and public holidays are the most important moments, when a deep undisturbed peace is supposed to fall upon the land. No lawn cutting, no chain-sawing, no power tools. Flushing toilets and taking showers are decidedly grey areas. Hanging out laundry—even the quietest of discreetly-patterned textiles—is frowned upon. Washing your car is a no-no.

roosterLegal quiet time is ordained daily from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. Also between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. so the breadwinner can eat a nice home-cooked meal, listen to the Swiss radio news, and have a refreshing siesta before getting back to the office. Loud music and live music are also not allowed (i.e., the drummer or the alp-horn blower in the apartment next door are strictly verboten.)

Fires will ALWAYS get you into trouble. I once tested the wind and when I was sure the smoke would blow straight into the fields, lit a very modest garden stick & leaf fire. The mayor’s wife was at my side in a flash and offered the helpful political suggestion that I should take all the combustible matter inside the house and burn it in the fireplace instead of outside. Ah-ha: A secret fire.

In Geneva in the old days before cars and planes and vacuum cleaners tore through the city, there were serious rules concerning carpet beating and roosters in the Old Town.

All of this is again in the news, as our next popular vote is entitled “Don’t Touch my Sundays” and concerns the reversal of a ruling that shopping malls within hailing distance of international tourists’ requirements can, possibly, offer shopping hours on Sundays.  There is the much more reliable second option of shops being allowed to open three Sundays per year.

But none of this really matters, of course. Here in the Geneva countryside if we want to Sunday-shop we can go to the markets or the supermarkets in France. If the rooster crows we can turn it into coq-au-vin. We will not starve.

Quaint Geneva will prevail and I am quite sure that we will have at least 49 Sundays a year of total peace and quiet.

 

 

 

 

Breaking Bad — Geneva Style

Yesterday morning, I found myself considering smashed flattened automobiles being hoisted high into the sky, swinging around a bit, then being dropped onto a huge heap of other rusty pancaked cars below.

Underneath this exciting live show was a huge TV screen with a colourful 9-minute video clip on a loop extolling the virtues of tires being mounted and wheels zippily screwed manfully into place.

To my left was a glass wall of windows that overlooked the peaceful bird-filled banks of the Rhone River. And straight ahead were the inner workings of Geneva’s biggest tire emporium, Pneus Claude.

car-demolitionYes. I had declared it a “service day”, and to complement an afternoon session in the dentist’s chair, chose 10:30 a.m. as the ideal moment to change summer tires for their winter siblings. It was the great bi-annual visit to Claude’s Tire Garage.

I used to dislike this chore, but over the years have begun to enjoy it. It is a bit like playing golf—you compete against yourself: the brevity of waiting time being the main goal. You succeed (as I did yesterday) by being out in under 30 minutes. Your car is the first in line. You have speedy friendly chaps—both at the check-in & pay desk and the rinsed-car return. Your tires are quickly deemed legally correct for at least another year. Your mechanic doesn’t stop for a smoke break after the first two tires.

And the waiting room has been greatly improved. Along with all the windows to keep a person entertained with the outside world, there is now heatingtables and chairs, a complete collection of all of Geneva’s free newspapers, a clean washroom, and, if you walk up to the fourth floor a fascinating showcase room of over 300 different models of wheel hubs.

Five vending machines hum importantly in the back corner. The queen is the panini machine which brings you hot flattened sandwiches 24 hours a day. This poetic choice exactly mirrors what’s happening at the demolition site next door as you wait excitedly for your number to be called out.

It is, primarily, a man’s world. A world of work boots, blue jeans, black t-shirts, and bellies-over-belts. It is invigorating and active with people and cars and taxis and trucks and vans and ambulances all busily coming and going.

Of course, there is no wicked crystal meth lab under the floor of Pneus Claude, but there COULD be as no one would ever notice. And Jesse Pinkman would look right at home in the red Pneus Claude jumpsuit driving their Mobile Tire Garage helpfully and hopefully through the Geneva countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cheery Charm of the Fall Fair

In these depressing days of Aleppo and Mosul and Donald, there is help at hand: the distraction of the fall fair.

Living in the Geneva countryside, you can choose your fair. There is, for example, the big Geneva Fall Fair (Les Automnales) coming up next month. Hundreds of stands will be set up inside Palexpo and you will be able to buy a house, a car, a dog, furniture and a swimming pool. You will be able to sign up for a kick-boxing and/or dancing classes and get a massage.

I have bought many lovely and useful things at this fair—an inlaid cow with a secret drawer, a camel blanket from Morocco, and a bracelet and headscarf from Palestine. It is an ideal place to do your Christmas shopping.

For the more rustic, there are the fall fairs over the border in France. The entry is free and after the danger and excitement of parallel parking on the mountainside main road you join the cider-drinking crowds. You buy roasted chestnuts and listen to the brass band playing on the town hall steps. They are dressed as clowns and one is proud to note that political humour is alive and well in France.

You closely examine the exhibitors’ stands. There are a couple of vans up from Aosta, Italy, selling copper pans and dried meat, but otherwise it is the local people selling what looks like their well-used personal belongings.

146697-affiche_mieussy_2016_hdv2This year, among the wheel hubs, old clothes and shoes, piles of cheeses, and the priceless candy man, we particularly admired some mounted deer heads and a green frog water pitcher. We bought a house-full of porcelain plates for next to nothing as there seems to be a glut of old china on the market as it is not suitable for modern times as it loses its gold trim in the dishwasher.

Complete strangers brag of their extraordinary bargains. There is an overwhelming atmosphere of correct (cheap) consumerism. The collective mind harks back to the excitement of being a little kid with a couple of bucks in your pocket and endless potential purchasing possibilities.

And, of course, this is the beauty of the fall fair. It takes you back to the old days: the carnies putting up their rickety rides on the old fairgrounds; maple sugar candy, toffee apples, and bags of fudge; the prize-winning pies and butter tarts looking a bit worse for wear after a few days in the sun.

My sister tells me that nowadays in Canada most of this has been replaced with the spare-rib trucks, the skewered deep-fried potato slices, the lottery tickets, and the acrobatic girls dressed as bees showing off the vintage cars.

We agreed, though, that there is still that occasional whiff of cotton candy and cigar smoke in the crisp autumn air that shoots you, straight as an arrow, back to a gold-trimmed past.

 

 

The Thanksgiving Turkey Blow-Out

I should have immediately realized that all Geneva shops running out of canned pumpkin was a sign. And then there was my sister’s message proclaiming that not even SHE (the festive queen) roasts turkeys anymore due to the last one being raw, overcooked, and inedible all at the same time. She clearly mentioned a turkey jinx, and I should have dropped all turkey plans immediately and firmly turned my mind towards salmon mousse and osso bucco.

But no. Once a girl gets a turkey dancing in her head, there is a fowl imperative.

(Historical Note:  Yesterday was the second Monday in October and, thus, the real (Canadian) Thanksgiving. The one that the freezing British explorer, John Frobisher, celebrated with his men in 1578, followed by the French settlers of Quebec in 1604 forming the Order of Good Cheer and having a jolly good pot-luck supper with their native neighbours.)

So, on Saturday evening, a distinguished group of French and Japanese friends were invited to our house for supper. The menu was not announced as the surprise factor and the photo opportunities were a brilliant foil for any culinary disasters.

A 6-kg fresh French turkey had been ordered. When it was picked up, it weighed a startling 10 kg – the reason being “they only had big ones”.

I consulted my 1960s cookbook, and was informed that, when stuffed, it would need 9 hours in a slow oven. In the old days, this would have been sufficient information. But having squeezed the huge naked thing with shaking wrists onto a baking sheet and into the lukewarm oven, I started checking.

I now have serious issues with the World Wiglazed-and-lacquered-roast-turkey-840x486de Web. The amount of information there was entirely mesmerizing and contradictory. By the time I had read through it all and realized that (probably) the turkey needed to be started in a hot oven, it had already been in a cold over for over an hour.

Covered in aluminium foil (due to lack of a turkey pan) it sat there doing NOTHING for half the day. As the sun tipped over the mountaintops I began to panic. I had found my turkey baster, but there was nothing to baste. There were emergency consultations. The upshot was that the stuffing should, perhaps, be outside, not inside, the bird. My American friend recommended one hour per pound (i.e., 22 hours) and added the fact that in her family home they had a rocket that shot out of the turkey when it was done. (She might have been making this up.)

It was a long and anxious afternoon as I slowly increased the oven temperature. Emotionally exhausted, at the end of the nine hours I gave up and removed the turkey. Wrists (and all the rest of me) were shaky.

It was perfect, but this was just dumb luck.  Next year, I swear, I’m going to forget all about this feast, and celebrate the Geneva Fast (Jeune Genevois which observes the St. Barthomomew’s Day Massacre, 1572).

All you need to cook is a dead-simple plum pie.

 

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

As a tourist you are perpetually dependent on the competence and the kindness of strangers—the drivers, the restaurant and hotel staff, your fellow passengers—all become part of a public puddle of general cooperation.

Usually, if your attitude is correct, and your luck holds, you swim about in a pond of congenial getting-by. Tips play a big part in this. In New York my sister taught me the fine art of pre-tipping the house-keeping staff, for example.  And writing bad reviews on an appropriate website also used to be an incentive for a reasonable standard of goods and service.

When the kindness puddle gets too polluted, though, it’s important to get to dry land as soon as possible. Everyone knows you can drown in an inch of muddy water.

Take the recent case of the Wild Boar Goulash Soup.

In one of Budapest’s best restaurants this local speciality featured as a course between the warm goose liver and the meat and dumplings. It was not even your ordinary goulash soup, but a special variety made with wild boar. (Query: is there such a thing as domestic boar?)

goulashsoupfeaAnyway, it consisted of tinned cubed vegetables and meat. I know this as a true fact, as I grew up eating tinned soup and loved it. Like a gourmet who can separate a single pearl of Beluga Caviar from a crystal bowl full of lesser eggs, I can distinguish a rubbery cube of tinned beef from any carefully-boiled home-made product. And tinned vegetables have their own texture that simply cannot be reproduced no matter how long you boil a carrot.

By my reckoning, a spoonful of canned meat and veg had been ladled into each bowl, a spoonful of paprika had been added, and it was all topped up with hot water. I wolfed down as much as I could of the solid bits before stopping to reflect, and then left the rest. My more fastidious dining-companion left all of his.

The waiter refused to take our almost-full bowls away, and a rather large lady came to enquire what our problem was. She was not exactly confrontational, but the musician playing the zither definitely stepped on the damper pedal so he could follow the interesting conversation that was about to take place.

It was not to our taste perhaps? We were not used to the paprika? Ah, but, exceptionally, her husband-the-chef had not made the delicious soup today and a sous-chef had made it. She would check with the kitchen ….

She never returned to our table. Much like the Lobster Newburg in Aswan (no lobster and the shells smelled of bleach) or the fennel soup in Istanbul (fennel had been replaced by chopped grass) yet another tourist restaurant had cut the final corner.

When this happens, it is our duty to gird up our tourist loins and send the simple, yet brave, message to the kitchen to tell the chef that it’s not good.

The puddle of cooperation (and the soup) might be better tomorrow.

PS  We left a big tip for the zither man.

Colo-Cola

Well, it seems just like yesterday when I had my last colonoscopy. I remember all the gory details oh-so-well: the shoe-box-sized package of product wittily named “Moviprep”, spending a cold lonely evening stuck on the commode, and apprehensively waiting in the murky bowels of the clinic where technicians stroll around with what look like rolled-up black garden hoses.

And now, five short years later, I’ve been nailed again.

I tried, as usual, to talk my way out of it. There must be a mathematical error. She had promised only every 10 years. No history of colon cancer in my family. My favourite food is muesli. She was having none of it, and retaliated with her own stories concerning family members fainting because of the needle in the back of the hand.

When asked point-blank whether she had actually had one herself, the reply was negative of course.

Intensive international research (a phone call to my sister) has revealed serious cultural discrepancies in the prevention of colon cancer. In Canada you just have to avoid Vitamin C and aspirins and send three-days-worth-of-poo samples off in the mail from the comfort of your own home. After that, no news is good news. Scurvy is a possible side-effect if one procrastinates too long.

If some medical emergency rudely requires a real “colo” then you go on a delicious popsicle, jelly, liquid diet for three days. Here, on the other hand, you are not allowed to eat any fibre food (fruit and vegetables strictly dave-barry-colonoscopy-certforbidden) for five whole days.

Then there is the trauma of the evening before your procedure. You fix your first litre of Moviprep (“colo-cola” in local flash medical parlance), drink (with a straw), and wait. Canadian instructions focus on creating a calming environment with soothing music, scented candles, feather-soft toilet paper, and humorous and diverting reading material. My instructions from the Swiss clinic were to avoid social entertaining on that particular evening as I would be otherwise engaged; and to call an ambulance if nothing happened within two hours.

Anyway, I have a few months in front of me to prepare as the colo doctor has not bought her 2017 agenda yet. I will find the softest eiderdown toilet paper, the loudest Wagnerian thunder-box music, and the most beautiful candles.

Colo-cola cocktails will be served with small paper parasols and black straws. But what I’m really looking forward to is the day after when I will be basking in the sure and certain knowledge of a lovely, healthy, Swiss-clean colo.