Posted in cycling, Travel

Microcosmic

The Ile-d’Yeu is a 30 minute ferry journey from the French mainland, off the Vendée coast. 

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The Vendée is my favourite part of France: a different kind of landscape, with (I seem to recall) the second best microclimate in France. The Cote d’Azur gets first prize for sunshine, and has the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean and its beaches to boast of; but it also has overcrowding, endless traffic queues and nowhere to park. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to an island off the Southern coast, and encountered a fabulously beautiful beach on the clear turquoise sea which was a long but thin strip of sand — and there was not enough room on it to lay down a towel.

vendee - 6.jpgThe Vendée has a long coastline on the blue Atlantic (Le Grand Large) with vast sandy beaches interspersed with rocky sections which have tidal pools full of sealife. It’s a great base for a more traditional seaside holiday, for both sunbathing and rockpool exploration, for kite-flying, beach tennis, body surfing, and more. It would also be a great base for a biology/geography field trip, what with the life teeming in the rock pools and the different types of vegetation in the sand dunes as they progress inland. Best of all, even in the peak of summer season, the beaches are not so slammed that you can’t move. You can in fact spread out without finding your face in someone else’s crotch. In the South, if you manage to fight your way through the traffic and the wildfires to get somewhere; and if you manage to find somewhere to park; and if you manage to find a postage stamp sized patch of beach to sit down on, you are also surrounded by the strutting and preening of the Beautiful People (ugly oligarchs) and their giant yachts.

I love the architecture of the Vendée: white houses with red tiled roofs, blue shutters. There are variations on this, and people paint  their shutters different colours, but the traditional Vendée house has two small single-storey sections joined to a two-storey central section. The best of them squat in the dunes, or among the pines, and the sun bounces blindingly off the white sides, and there are no gutters because there’s a collective self delusion that it never rains.

vendee - 1The Ile-d’Yeu has a small port on one side, several sandy beaches, and a rocky coast with a ruined castle. Like a society, it has rules. Visitors are allowed, but not with their cars. Only islanders are allowed to have cars.

I was naively optimistic about this. Far too many beauty spots are ruined by the motor car. Let’s face it: everywhere is ruined by the motor car: towns, cities, countryside. But it’s especially jarring when you visit somewhere ancient and mediaeval, somewhere quaint and relatively untouched by modernity. I remember visiting the hillside fortress village of Gordes and being depressed by the unending stream of noisy traffic. And wherever you go, its a universal truth that even the pedestrian zones, the zones pietons, are blighted by the eternal presence of the busy-and-important person who decides  they are the exception, and so you are always dodging cars and vans as they edge forward at an ironic walking pace and you are forever encountering that peculiar sense of privileged entitlement which is a constant reminder that you live in a capitalist dystopia.

So! I was excited at the prospect of an island with very few motor cars and where everyone hires a bike. An egalitarian utopia of pedal power!

Every island is a microcosm of society

But of course, was disappointed. Of course, the people with cars, the locals, the islanders, asserted their privilege aggressively and selfishly, with no sense that they were part of a society. They treated bicycles as a nuisance to be dispatched, and were they ever determined to overtake — even if there were another 15 bicycles in front of the one they passed dangerously close — even if there was another slow-moving car in front of those 15 bicycles — and in front of that car another 15 bicycles, and so on, all the way into town. It was bicycles all the way down. But no! They must get past, because such is the privilege of car ownership. And of course, the tourists, bless them, mostly unused to the cycling life, were pathetically deferential to their superiors on four wheels and simply accepted this state of affairs, while I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, vous roulez a la vitesse d’un vélo, ou vouz achetez un vélo! Often, overtaken, I would pedal harder, catch up, overtake them, and then act as a rolling roadblock, sitting in front of them with my middle finger dancing in front of their windscreen. Fuckers! It’s not that I hate motorists; I am a motorist, after all. But I hate people who think they are more entitled, and there is no escape from them, ever. Up against the wall! Oh, okay, I admit it: I hate motorists, including myself.

vendee - 5Even worse, it turned out, that as well as hiring a bicycle from one of the myriad hire shops (including the horrifically named Bi-Clown), you could also hire shonky old cars, most of them vintage Citroens and Renaults. For a mere €80 par jour, you could lord it over the cyclists like a rich second-home owning Parisienne. What a way to conspicuously consume! Belching black smoke from a shitty old chugger for a week for the price of a half-decent bicycle. And while you’re at it, park on the pavement, why don’t you?

Eye-watering

It’s an island, so I personally don’t think longer than a week’s stay is necessary. There are only so many things to see, and the town is both small and expensive. I saw some wonderfully colourful cotton shirts, but at €70 apiece in the sale, they were beyond my means, as were most other things you saw in the shops, from tinned sardines to nautically-themed t-shirts. They did a nice line in branding: the island’s name shortened to an assertive YE on everything from polo shirts to wet bags and keyrings.

vendee - 3.jpgThe house we were renting was a  miracle in packin’  ‘em in. Including bicycle hire, we’re talking €5000 for the fortnight, split between a number of families. The first week, three or four families shared, and then we changed over for our week with four more. Each bedroom was constructed with a mezzanine, so that a poky room for two became a poky room for four. I think there were five bedrooms and at least three bathrooms. We got an ensuite bathroom to ourselves, which was a solid reminder to me that the ensuite bathroom or toilet is an abomination that Shouldn’t Be Allowed. Not with walls that thin!

The ethos was that everybody ate together, most of the time, which led to some late mealtimes as everyone drifted in and eventually got around to lighting the barbecue. If you’ve never cooked regularly for 15 people, here’s an example: one day I barbecued 2.5kg of chicken breasts with four trays of sausages, thinking this would be an excessive amount of food. The leftovers were enough to half-fill a cereal bowl. A huge pot of moules (mussels) was accompanied by four bags of oven frites. If I had my way, we’d have done our own thing, eaten when we were hungry, and not had to deal with such catering at scale.

There was lots of seafood, on which I’m not keen. Freshly caught tuna was sliced into steaks and grilled: good, especially with my improvised sweet/sour sauce made with apricot jam, vinegar, and chilli/ginger. But the next tuna brought in was eaten raw, sushi-style. Not my thing. There were also mullet, grey and red, and other huge fish (hake, I think, merlu in French), all caught locally. I would have liked the time to cook and prepare these creatively, but they were just cooked whole and consumed in scraps by the multitude.

As for bread, apparently the local bakery produced wonderful baguettes, of which 8-10 were dispatched daily. I even found a couple of fresh GF loaves on the island, and these were much better than the vacuum packed supermarket breads.

Things you realise they got wrong in Jaws

vendee - 7Jaws is set on an island, and they got right the idea that the “islanders” tolerate visitors only as an economic necessity. They also got right that arrival scene: with the hordes of people arriving by ferry from the mainland. But, in reality, most of the “islanders” are just rich people with second homes. They’re visitors themselves, and they should ride fucking bikes and stop trying to lord it over the rest of us. And the arrival scene is happening all the time, every 30 minutes, another boatload gets off to stay, and another boatload gets on to leave.

Chief Brody wanted to close “the beach” but on an island there is never just one beach:  there are lots of little beaches, and if there was a shark, there would be lots of places for it to operate, some of them — even on a small island — isolated and wild. And if there was a shark, it would probably feed 15 people.

Islands are hills in the sea

One difference between the Ile-d’Yeu and the mainland of the Vendée is that the island undulates a bit. Nothing too dramatic, but whereas much of the Vendée coast was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch geo-engineers hundreds of years ago* and is therefore mostly flat until you get about 15 miles inland, the island itself is a hill in the sea, which is higher in the middle, and has a rocky coast that does rise and descend steeply in places. None of this was beyond the ability of even temporary cyclists, but the nature of the bikes that you can hire made it harder than it ought to be.

vendee - 10The geometry of the bikes we hired was simply terrible. Even a mild incline would cause burning pain in your backside. I don’t know: the saddle wasn’t far enough back from the  pedals or something. So although you never really cycled more than a couple of kilometres at a time, you felt it in your legs when you arrived. Our longest ride was a circuit of about half the island on a day when the Atlantic swelled and there was wind and drizzling rain. It was bracing, though the younger you were, the less fun you found it. The kids and I were dreaming of a Mars bar and a coffee, and we came across a man with a van in an isolated cove who was offering both for €1 apiece to our unalloyed joy. But the youngest kid, their cousin, went into a steep decline. Problem with a cycling holiday, though: if you’re tired and you want to go home, you still have to pedal to get there.

*St. Benoist-sur-Mer, for example, is a few kilometres from the sea, these days.

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Posted in bastards, musings

If you have to light a fire, is summer over?

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Years ago, before the kids, B and I drove from round here to the South for a week or so, sleeping on the sofa bed in one of her great aunts’ houses. Conventional wisdom had it that you drove overnight, so we set off at 10 pm and, to begin with, stayed on the Route Nationale. After a couple of hours, we stopped for a rest and, standing at the side of the road somewhere around Lons-le-Saunier, were treated to the most spectacular meteor shower I’ve ever seen.

Yes, it was the Perseids, so it must have been this time of year. A clear, warm, August night. Last night, when I stepped out of the house around midnight to see if there were any meteors, I was wearing a jumper and all I could see were grey clouds.

Yesterday was cold. So much so, that B decided to light a fire. I objected, not because I too wasn’t cold, but because it seemed too much a reminder that September, and work, is looming.

Spending the six weeks* of summer here over the past 10 years means that this place feels like home, and I don’t hanker for England at all. The fact that the job has become horrible and the country not much better means that I’m ever more reluctant to set out for the channel tunnel and its irritations (security theatre). Melancholy descends, and it’s hard to enjoy these August days.

There’s something in the quality of August light. The sun is just that little bit lower in the sky than it is in July, and the shadows stretch slightly further, and the leaves catch the light at an angle that is both beautiful and a reminder that Autumn is getting close. And then I think to myself, I’ve never seen this place in September, and the reality of being a wage slave comes crashing down. Just the idea that one day I might see these trees start to turn and the September shadows in the garden keeps me going, I suppose.

*This summer holiday (for teachers) is a total swizz: barely six weeks. We’re back on Sept 1, which is just fucking malicious. At least the kids get an extra weekend.

Posted in bastards, musings

Will I miss it?

Inspired by Twitter’s top philosopher (or top Twitter philosopher) @guylongworth, this post is.

MarmiteA few years ago, I used to think about retiring to France and worried about missing a few things from the UK. Over time, that list of things-I’d-miss has grown shorter and shorter. Packing for our summer visits would often involve compensating for those items in various ways, but things have changed.

Let’s arbitrarily say, fifteen years ago my list of missable concerns (when based in France) would be as follows:

  • The BBC
  • British television in general
  • Decent tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cosmopolitan cuisine
  • The internet
  • Not having to kiss people to say hello and goodbye

I used to consider the BBC a great jewel in the UK’s crown. French television was and remains more or less terrible, and I’d compensate for our absence by programming my PVR to record a shit-load of stuff every time we were away. Our visits, 15 years ago, were usually about two weeks, and our PVR allowed programming up to 14 days in advance.

How have things changed? I barely watch anything on the BBC now – not only that, but I’ve been sickened by its toadying to the current and previous governments, its infiltration by Agents of Murdoch, and its chronic bias towards a right-wing news agenda. As to my TV watching: it’s all on-demand, streaming, virtually none of it live. I barely use my Freeview PVR when I’m in the country and never bother to programme it when I go away. I’ve grown used to the idea that, should I move here permanently, I’d be able to find various ways of compensating (pointing a satellite dish at the right place in the sky; subscribing to Netflix/Amazon Prime; or just hitting the Fnac and buying a boxed set). So the first two items have been crossed off my list.

A decent cup of tea is still an issue. For our now 6-week summer and other visits, we pack a lot of Yorkshire Tea. French supermarkets serve us poorly (fucking Liptons), so future me would still need the odd tea-based care package or dash across the channel to Kent Sainsbury’s. It’s no wonder tea isn’t popular when you can’t buy the proper stuff and the supermarket shelves are groaning with yucky fruit teas and insipid Liptons.

Fish and chips is also still an issue, but it’s just as big an issue in the UK, where the corporate interests have been allowed to dictate fishing policy over decades, meaning that most fish stocks are unsustainable. Of all the things the EU might have achieved on our behalf, controlling over-fishing was crucial. And of course, every attempt was met with a UK media narrative about interference and rights and freedoms, all based on the short-term economic interests of the profit takers and not the people who pay the tax. Still, it remains the case that if you want decent fish and chips in France, you have to roll your own. I’m unlikely to bother much, and I’ve resigned myself to giving it up like the bad habit it is, or eating friture de (farmed) carpe and liking it.

Cosmopolitan cuisine. An odd thing to say about France, but their strong gastronomic tradition means that, beyond (usually poor) Italian food, you can’t really get international foods here – certainly not a good curry or other Asian food. Maybe in Paris, but we’re a long way from there. Considering the French history in Vietnam, I’m especially surprised that there aren’t Vietnamese restaurants on every hight street. You can, in the bigger cities, find North African and sometimes Spanish food, but France is quite unlike Germany, the Netherlands, and other European centres. I don’t particularly like the French style of food (summed up as: fatty meat with a fancy sauce), so I do miss the options. I’m so often disappointed in the French take on pizza that I’m better off making my own. I think jars of curry paste and other oriental ingredients would have to go on the care package list, along with tea.

The next item on my old list, the internet, has been less of an issue since the Three network introduced their Feel at Home scheme, which gives you your UK contract even while roaming, in selected countries – including France. The speeds are throttled, but it’s okay for Twitter and (usually) Instagram. This summer, I’ve gone even further and (expensively) hired a home wifi dongle that allows you to share a 3G+ (or 4G) connection amongst up to 10 devices. This gives us the level of 3G we’d get if we had bought French sims, as we did for a couple of years. It’s only 3GB a day (so-called “unlimited”) before it gets throttled, but the speed is okay. And when I move here, I guess we’ll get an actual hard-wired internet connection.

Over the years, the list of food items I find it hard to do without has grown. English cheddar cheese is hard to find in France (so much for the single fucking market) and irreplaceable for certain things. The French make a lot of cheese, but they do nothing to match the sharp tangy taste and meltability of cheddar. French sausages tend to be too salty and nowhere near as tasty as the best British sausages. And good bacon is similarly hard to find. All of these things get added to the care package/cross channel Saino’s list. Actually, there’s a small business there: the potential to disrupt the high prices charged by supermarkets for the likes of Marmite and baked beans.

Mainly, these days, when we spend 6 weeks in France, I miss having a useable oven in my kitchen. I do most things on the barbecue and the stove top, but if/when I retire here, I’ll have to get a proper, modern oven to replace this propane-fuelled piece of shit that tends to leave things raw on top and burnt on the bottom.

Culturally, the biggest problem I have over here is that you can’t just say hello to people: you have to kiss-kiss or shake hands both to say hello and goodbye, even when on a short visit. It’s lucky I’m not a germophobe, but it’s enough to turn you into one. At the wedding last week, I was forced to kiss-kiss and shake hands with an astonishing number of people I’d never met (and will never meet again), and leaving a social occasion can take half an hour, depending on the number involved. Just once, I’d like to be able to enter a room, wave my hand, and be done.

As to the rest of British culture: the small (island)-mindedness; the celebration of ignorance; the dominance of the right wing press; the monarchy; the dominance of media and arts by public school educated Oxford/Cambridge graduates; the arrogance; the sense of entitlement; the delusions of grandeur; I’ll miss none of it.

Posted in bastards

Heading South

P1020679I’ve already done my complaining about the South, the narrow strip of coast that seems to attract the whole of France and points beyond every summer, creating a crush of humanity and noisy traffic. Sitting here looking at this view, yes, this view, you’d wonder why anyone would complain. Yes, this rental house is ideally situated for me. It’s quiet, up in the hills, has a pool. But the family are all down at the beach this afternoon, sharing a postage stamp sized patch of gritty, sticky sand, and being cooled by the (strong today) breeze.

But I wanted to complain anew about the drive South, which has to be one of the worst experiences you can have in a car.

Nine hours on the road to make a journey that would take seven hours without traffic. We’re heading in from the East, so the first bit of the journey is all right. The motorways are quiet, the drivers sane. But it all changes as soon as you get South of Lyon and are joined by the traffic from the rest of France, particularly those city dwellers from the Island called Paris.

Then the traffic gets M1/M25 heavy. The British are used to this, of course, but most of the French experience it twice a year, once on the way down, and once on the way back. And they go a bit crazy, it has to be said. The mad lane-swapping, for example, with sudden lurching manoeuvres to make up one car length and get ahead, oh yes, of the rest. And the super-aggressive tailgating, in the apparent belief that if they can intimidate you, the car in front of them, to move aside, then everything will be all right. Only there’s always another car, and so the aggression gets ramped up and up and up.

The traffic is heavy, and every service area is slammed, crowded with humanity queuing for a pee. There are no parking spaces, and people are basically abandoning cars just anywhere, just like they do here in the South, where there is never anywhere to park, and even the supermarket car park is full all the time. The atmosphere is febrile, desperate, and the closer you get to your destination, the hotter it is.

I was using Google Maps as my satnav, as is my habit, and apart from one application crash, it worked brilliantly. How brilliantly? Quite early on, just as the traffic was getting worse, straight after Lyon, one of the grey alternative routes indicated it was 9 minutes faster. I immediately swept the car off the motorway at the junction in question and followed what was, essentially, an impromptu diversion around a traffic jam. We’re sharing this house with my brother-in-law and family and they set out twenty minutes ahead of us. We caught up with them at a service area near Bourg-en-Bresse (they always stop for ages because they’re French), and they set off again about five minutes ahead of us.

While we were on the Google Diversion, we overtook them, somewhere to the left of us, sitting in a massive bouchon (traffic jam). We could see the motorway, but we were on the more or less empty parallel National road. The ‘nine minutes faster’ turned into ninety minutes faster. We got back on the motorway, but we were now an hour and a half ahead of them, as they remained stuck in a slow moving nexus of traffic all the way South. Sure, we hit slow spots, but we still managed to arrive three and a half hours before them. Thanks, Google.

The worst bit, for me, came after one of the gares de péage, which was when about 20 lanes of booth traffic tried to merge into the three lanes of the motorway after the péage. For a British person who believes in queuing, taking turns, and fair play, it was the worst place in the world.

Dunno about going back. It was bad, heading the other way. Do we hang around for most of Saturday, setting off in the evening? Do we leave before the crack of dawn, as we did heading South? I suspect the former, but I worry about the cat. We left Oscar in Auxelles, being cared for by neighbours, and he’s already thrown up on the floor.

Posted in bastards

Zen and the Art of Barbecue Assemblage

bbq001Having noticed the extortionate price of Weber gas (and other) barbecues in France, I cleverly bought one in the UK and shipped it over at Easter with my wife, who was on her own with one of the kids, with plenty of room in the car.

(The box was BIG.)

I bought a Spirit 320, a three-burner model with a side burner, which gives me garden cooking equipment superior to the ancient and unreliable butane gas cooker in the kitchen of our house in France. I was there last week and used it almost every day, cooking a roast chicken, pizzas, and the usual barbecue fare such as burgers and sausages… once I got it assembled.

I was quite pleased with myself, by the time I’d reached the stage illustrated above. By then, I’d usually have put something on back to front and upside down, but managed to do everything right this time. It was all going swimmingly in fact, right up to the point where I was ready to get some gas and connect it to the propane regulator.

My brother-in-law was immediately skeptical. As far as he knew, everyone in France used butane. We went next door to see what my wife’s uncle had connected to his (almost identical) Weber: turned out to be butane. Mine had arrived with a Propane regulator. We could have picked up our spare propane gas bottle in England and carried it to France, but the Channel Tunnel really has a thing against gas on the trains, for some reason. Camping gas… okay. Big bottles of propane? No so much.

Anyway, as so many people in rural France use gas bottles, there are plenty of places to buy. We stopped on the way to check out a petrol station’s offering, but the range was, frankly, bewildering. At our local garden centre in England, you’ve got a choice of propane or butane. In France, both gases are available, but from a wide range of manufacturers, all with different valve systems.

We went to Intermarché and bought a couple of small bottles of propane. We were given regulators to use with these, which would mean removing the one that came with the barbecue. We were immediately out of my comfort zone. In a sane universe, a propane bottle would have a standard valve/connector, so you wouldn’t have to faff around like this. But we live under capitalism, and capitalism is wasteful. Of course the connecting valve was unique to the manufacturer. I tried taking bits apart, to see if there was a place I could marry the hose to a valve somewhere, but it turned out not to be possible.

So I went to the local hardware store (la quincaillerie, great word) and bought a whole new hose. That should be standard fit, right? It said on it it would work with domestic cookers, gas bottles, and barbecues. Took it home. Not a standard fit.

Luckily my brother-in-law, who is technophobic when it comes to using computers and mobile phones, is a proper engineer. He built his own house. He can fix a broken mobile phone, even though he hates using them. He once fixed a broken camera zoom. We called him. He came around, and with a fair amount of cussing and complaining, managed to fit the propane regulator that came with the gas bottles to the hose that came with the Weber. Unlike a similar fix achieved by myself, which might have involved gaffer tape and scissors, his fix is permanent and, you know, safe.

bbq002

Posted in bastards, cycling, Television

Finally: the last days of Top Gear

cycle-lane-sign
Why don’t cars give way to bikes?

My sister sent me a link to this article in the Observer, which asks if cycling has “finally” become a natural part of British life. As with most newspaper headlines that ask questions, the answer is, of course no. One of the things the article mentions is how much better cycling is in more civilised countries like Denmark and Holland – even France and the USA have a culture of treating cyclists with respect.

I often think about why this might be. Why is it that cycling, a hugely popular mass-participation activity, gets such short shrift when it comes to British public policy?

We were in Whitstable yesterday. Like the decent people we are, we used the Bank Holiday special Park and Ride and took the bus into the town*. If there’s a Park and Ride, I generally use it, because I am keenly aware that many towns, cities, and villages in this country (and in France, for that matter) are blighted by the presence of cars. The streets are too narrow, the buildings too old, there are loads of pedestrians, and the constant drone of insistent traffic is the ultimate spoiler. People who insist on driving into tourist destinations, jockeying for the limited space, are anti-social.

The kind of people who insist on driving their cars through the narrow streets of tourist destination are the same people, of course, who make life difficult for cyclists all over the place.

We are living in the end times of the motor car, I think. The popularity of Top Gear is explained by that. Top Gear is the last, decadent thrust of car culture into the bosom of civilisation. Its reactionary politics, its not-so-closeted racism, its vicious intolerance of difference, its championing of boorish self-centred behaviour: all these things are connected to its celebration of the dinosaur internal combustion engine.

That the British have a problem – not with cycling – but with cyclists, is all down to the problem we have with class. If America, the country that invented car culture, can respect cyclists, why can’t the British? The difference is our obsession with class, the need to feel better than others. As soon as someone gets behind the wheel of a motor car, they get a superiority complex. They undergo the usual personality change, and, in control of their own personal fiefdom for once in their lives,  they like to lord it over other road users. There are degrees of this, of course, and just as not all men are sexual harassers, not all motorists are aggressive sociopaths. But just as all women have suffered some form of harassment, all cyclists have encountered a motorist who seems to actually want to kill them.

I’m glad that Top Gear exists, because, like The Daily Telegraph, it gives you an insight into a certain mind-set. When you witness Clarkson chundering about Welsh people, or gypsies, or bus lanes, or teachers, or cyclists, you are viewing a synecdoche of the underlying attitudes of an enormous number of people, attitudes you should be aware of every time you take to the road. Clarkson is just King Cunt. We will never be Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or even France, until British motorists stop thinking they have more rights than other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Lorry drivers, bus drivers, white van people, are all as guilty.

Even my wife commented (from the passengers seat) the other day, when she saw an oncoming cyclist in the middle of a single track road. “Get over to the side,” she said. I had to gently explain to her that a cyclist has the right to position him or herself wherever it is safest – the edge of the road generally being the most unsafe place to ride. All I had to do, in my car, was slow down and move aside – stop if necessary – to let the cyclist past. But too many drivers consider it a personal affront and humiliation to have to do this. I’m in a car, they think. My car cost way more than that bike, which makes me better than them. Why should I give way?

King Cunt Clarkson is on his final warning. The problem the BBC has is that it gave him a sweetheart deal which includes 50% ownership of the Top Gear brand. I suspect (or should I say hope) that the next time Clarkson opines that some group of public servants should be shot, or uses a racist slur he learned at his boarding school, it will be the end of both him and the brand. End times.

=======================

*The price of the Whitstable Park and Ride was extortionate, which is stupid and wrong. If it’s more expensive than parking in town, you’re defeating the object. In Strasbourg, we pay a couple of Euros for four return tram tickets and a parking spot. Parking in Whitstable cost six quid. This is just punishing people who are trying to do the right thing, which just about sums up the sickness that afflicts Britain.

Posted in Baking

Home-made viking loaf, attempt #1

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In France over the summer, I became enamoured with the Banette Viking, a very dark seeded loaf that only seemed to be in the bakery occasionally. It turned out that they only baked them on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and even then only made around four. On the last Saturday, I bought all four, and brought some home with us, but they’re all gone now.

The Viking is clearly related to Scandinavian/Russian black breads. It’s obviously got Rye flour in it, as well as sunflower, sesame, linseed, and millet seeds. It also has something to give it that dark colour. Rye flour on its own is more grey than black/brown. A sniff revealed the presence of cocoa – and probably treacle. No wonder it was so delicious! Unlike most heavy rye breads, it had a light, airy sourdough-type texture, which might explain why it was only in the shop every couple of days.

When I have time, I’ll have a go at a two-day bake, but for my first attempt, I wanted to mix ingredients and go for flavour/colour before tackling the sourdough texture.

I mixed:

  • 150g dark rye flour (Doves, I think, from Tesco)
  • 250g white flour (I only had pizza flour in the house)
  • 50g wholemeal bread flour
  • 1 tsp vitamin C powder
  • 3 tsp fast-action yeast (about 10g)
  • 1 tbsp black treacle (or molasses)
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt (added to the dough once already stretchy)
  • 1 tsp Diax
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 40g softened butter
  • 1-2 tbsp sunflower seeds (all I had available)
  • 1-2 tbsp rolled oats
  • 300 ml water

I let the mixer run for about 10 minutes, and adjusted the amount of flour slightly because it was a wet dough. Ideally, you’d add the water in stages.

I put it to rise in a warm place because I was in a hurry, and after an hour or so, knocked it back and shaped it into a loaf for a tin. I rolled it in oats before putting it into the oiled tin.

It rose quite well. Then I slashed the top and baked at 220°C for 30 minutes.

You can see the results above. It was actually pretty close to being the right colour, and tasted very close to the original (maybe I added a tad too much cocoa!). Just had a slice with a poached egg for breakfast. My next plan is to source some multi-seed flour from theflourbin and try it with that.

Posted in cycling

Home again, home again

English: A Burger King bacon cheeseburger.

Got back from France the day before the new school term. Boy, that was a long holiday.

We arrived back home around three in the afternoon after a 12-hour drive, punctuated with fast food at the Burger King in the Eurotunnel terminal (what happened to Quick?). Within an hour, I was out on the bike for a blast of fresh air and a change of pace. Having expressed concerns, in my previous post, about my lack of leg-strength and stamina, I’ve been interested to see how I performed on my familiar routes.

First observation (it has to be said): British roads (Buckinghamshire British roads) are stupidly uneven and bumpy. Every road is as bad as the worst stretches of road I encountered in France, where exposed tarmac had melted in the hot sun and bits of it had been dragged up by fat car tyres. Most of the roads I was on in France were in good condition, allowing me at least an extra 4 km/h of basic speed.

It always feels windy round here, but I guess that’s only like climbing hills. I was obviously tired that first afternoon after a long drive in the car, so it wasn’t really a fair test. I rode just over 21 km and it took me 55 minutes. I got one Strava Personal Record and one 3rd best time. The PR was on a 3km stretch that goes downhill to a shallow valley and then uphill again. The worst gradient is about 4% for a few tens of metres, which was nothing compared to what I’ve been riding on. I’m now ranked 62/109 on that stretch,  which seems about right. I’m 50. Hopefully, if I was 20 years younger or whatever, I’d be further up the list. On the “3rd best time” stretch, I’m 245/489, a slightly higher ranking because it’s a mostly downhill bit, and I like going downhill, especially on a gentle gradient.

My second trip out since I got back was after work on Thursday, fitting in with my normal pattern of rides, along the same route. This time, I did it in about 52 minutes and got 2 Strava PRs. The first was on the same 3km stretch, and the second was on another little climb, which is called on Strava The Col de Wicken. Again, it’s about 4%, flattening out to 2%, and it’s only about 700 metres, which is laughable compared to the half of the Ballon d’Alsace I managed, with a gradient of 7-10% for ten times further. I’m 139th out of 250 on that bit, which again seems about right.

So I’m doing a little better than before the holiday, but not much. These still feel like hills. Disappointingly, I didn’t lose any weight over the summer, in spite of riding a total distance of around 900km since the beginning of July, including 9km of “elevation gain” and over 40 hours in the saddle. On the other hand, I did only gain a kg (which I’ve since lost), in spite of all the alcohol, snacks, biscuits, cheese, and other French goodies I was stuffing in my face.

So we’ll call it even.

Posted in musings

Barbecue in the woods

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A non-cycling post for a change (hooray), although ironically, if I’d chosen to cycle up into the Saint Antoine forest for this gathering, I wouldn’t have been alone.

A group of my wife’s friends have an annual picnic in the woods, followed by a deathwish plunge into the glacial waters that cascade through the forest, over rocks and fallen trees.

The location was one of the many picnic/parking spots dotted along the forest road. They’re quite popular. Clearly, somebody arrived early enough to nab the spot. The barbecue arrived shortly after, consisting of a rusty set of legs with a rusty box (former water tank), loaded up with a sack of charcoal and bits of fallen tree. There was some kind of grate to stick over the top.

Everybody bought food. Since we’re not usually around at this time of year, we just took a few frankfurters, crisps, bread, and drinks, nothing too difficult. Others bought kebabs, chicken joints, big lumps of what they call bacon, but which is really belly (?) pork. Anyway, there was a lot of meat, which is always nearly enough to make me turn veggie. I stuck to the frankfurters.

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I also found a spot and sat taking photos. The woods are beautiful, with wonderful light filtered through the trees, made even better with the addition of smoke, as any budding filmmaker knows.

After the meal, many of them (adults and children alike) set off into the woods in their swimwear and shoes, to plunge down the river, jumping into the deeper pools and taking crazy risks. My heart was in my mouth as I watched my kids edge down a precipice and dive into a pool which was bisected by a fallen tree. It was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, or from some remote Pacific island. But it was France, about 15 minutes by car from where we live (50 minutes by bike).

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The water was numbingly cold. I know this because I burnt my finger on a skewer and put it in the river, which was the nearest source of cold water. My hand was numb in seconds. These kids and some of their parents were plunging into the water, coming up gasping for breath, and their feet were cold for ages afterwards. I really feared for some of the older, plumper, guys, worrying they’d give themselves heart attacks.

Afterwards, much cake was taken, and then the cyclists set off home, followed by the rest of us. Next year, I still won’t go in the water. More pictures on my Flickr account.