Thursday, April 17, 2014

Buns

Over the last few months, my son François Skyvington has been examining the question of high-quality hamburgers (as opposed to the dull stuff sold in fast-food outlets), with a view to creating a roadside restaurant in this field. He tells me that one of the basic challenges consists of being able to create your hamburgers using the very best bread buns that can be imagined. You might say that the bun is the foundation upon which the hamburger is to be built. And, if you start with a low-quality factory-made bun, the hamburger cannot possibly be top-class.

A few days ago, at the local supermarket, I came upon a beautifully-produced recipe book on the theme of high-quality hamburgers.


Not surprisingly, the opening pages dealt with the question of how to bake perfect buns. So, I decided to give it a try. I should explain that I’ve been baking loaves of wholemeal bread for ages, first in an old-fashioned manual manner, and later by means of a bread machine (as I’ve mentioned often in this blog). But the lightweight white buns used in hamburgers are a rather different affair, and I had no experience whatsoever in this domain.

The opening line of the recipe, for 10 to 12 buns, indicated 600 g of flour, but didn’t say which variety. I decided to use plain type-45 wheat flour of the kind used by pastry-cooks. Then the recipe called for 25 g of fresh yeast. I took this to mean about two-thirds of a block of compressed yeast of the following kind:


Now, that particular amount of yeast, 25 g, was the first of a series of minor elements that made me feel that there was something slightly contrived (but not necessarily erroneous) about this recipe. Everybody knows that these familiar blocks of yeast weigh 42 g, and it would have been more natural if the recipe had been composed of measurements based upon a kilogram of flour and a cube of yeast, giving rise to a dozen-and-a-half buns.

The recipe then indicated the following list of 6 ingredients:

a teaspoon of salt
a dessertspoon of sugar
180 g of skimmed milk
150 g of water
1 egg
30 g of butter

The idea of expressing liquid quantities in grammes, rather than volumetrically (in centilitres, for example), intrigued me. But what astonished me most of all was the explicit suggestion that all these ingredients should be simply “mixed together”. Can you imagine a naive cook trying to mix into the wet flour an egg, butter and fragments of yeast? The recipe had obviously jumped over certain important details… so I decided to use my common sense and modest cooking experience.

First, I made sure that the salt and sugar were interspersed throughout the flour. Then I took my familiar blender (used for pastry) and made sure that the butter was totally integrated into the flour.


Then I scrambled the egg into the milk and water, and did my best to “dissolve” the fresh yeast in this liquid. Only then did I pour everything into the flour and start to mix it all together. In fact, the measurements were ideal, in that the resulting mass of dough could be kneaded comfortably (and thoroughly) on a floured table. The recipe then told me to leave the dough in an oiled salad bowl, covered with a wet cloth, for an hour and a half. By the end of that period, the dough had risen nicely, but not excessively.

Since the dough was quite elastic, it was not a simple task to cut it up into regular-shaped buns, but I did my best. (I’ll need to invent some kind of a trick solution at this level.) The recipe suggested a funny method for covering the top of each future bun with sesame seeds. I was advised to wet a few paper towel sheets and roll them into a ball. Then I used this damp ball to moisten the upper surface of each bun before pressing it into a saucer of sesame seeds. Finally, the buns were baked at 200° (in an oven housing a cup of water, to moisten the atmosphere) for 20 minutes. And the outcome of my first attempt at bun-baking was most promising.


Esthetically, they are not as regularly round as orthodox buns. I didn’t realize that, once the dough has risen and then been cut into bun-sized fragments, the elasticity of each fragment of dough defies all attempts at reshaping the bun. (Here again, there’s obviously some kind of a secret technique that I haven’t yet grasped.) Viewed individually, each bun was—if I can say so with modesty—a tiny masterpiece.


The interior was light and airy, yet firm: a little like English scones.


After a few minutes under a grill, the interior surfaces were toasted perfectly.


I decided to add some ham, cheese and olives for a tasty toasted lunch.


I conclude that the principles of bun-making outlined in the above-mentioned book are correct and workable in a domestic kitchen, even though they would appear to be derived from an industrial process about which I know nothing. I now intend to pursue my research towards the ultimate home-made hamburger… including French fries made with a fabulous French-made minimum-oil device—the SEB Actifry—that I shall be receiving tomorrow. Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that my investigations might help my son, because there is a huge gap between all the interesting cooking experiments that can be carried out at home and the cost-effective solutions that are required in a commercial restaurant environment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How French are you?

Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin in the role of
Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS 117,
a very French but less-than-brilliant spy
at the time of Président René Coty.

Click here to access a funny quiz… which was obviously made in the USA, where they cherish stereotypes, and seem to be totally incapable of moving on beyond their favorite simplistic visions of non-American people who happen to be “sharing” the planet Earth with them.

I was almost surprised to find that I ticked quite a few boxes… but I won’t tell you which ones, and how many.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Eternal France

The sun is shining upon Gamone. Yesterday, on the slopes of Choranche, I donned my beekeeper’s clothes and attended the second hands-on session of the local association. I have no images, for the simple reason that our white astronaut uniforms and leather gloves make it difficult to take photos. But it was a thrill to ease apart the wooden frames and to discover that the bees of Choranche had been making hay (honey, rather) while our sun was shining. What fabulous little well-organized stealthy beasts! I’m immensely dismayed by the fear of crushing a single one of them (an inevitable accident) when replacing a frame.

This sunny Sunday afternoon, on TV, I’m watching the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. All’s quiet on the Western Front.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Extraordinary performance


The Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel [1929-1978] composed the celebrated song Ne me quitte pas [Don’t leave me] in 1959. Click here to access a video of an extraordinary performance of this masterpiece by Brel himself. This performance was recorded in Paris on 10 November 1966. A week earlier, in Brussels (where I was working as a computer programmer), Christine had given birth to our daughter Emmanuelle.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bon voyage

I would have liked to publish this blog post yesterday... but (as Bill Shakespeare put it, so succinctly) better late than never. The last time I spoke about links between the French railway system and the city of Sydney in Australia was almost 7 years ago in a blog post entitled Silly sendup of Sydney by French railways [display]. Happily, things have evolved a lot since then. Yesterday morning—on April 1, 2014, a great date in links between France and Australia—the electronic departure board at the train station in Lille, France’s great northern capital near the Belgian border, announced the inauguration of the first-ever train service from France to Sydney, with its departure set for 11h40 (exactly 23 minutes after the departure of the regular train from Lille to Los Angeles).


As a former resident of Sydney, and now a naturalized French citizen, I must admit that I was totally shocked by the absence of our ambassador at Lille, to bid farewell and Bon voyage to the adventurous inaugural passengers. To understand the full meaning of “adventurous”, simply take a look at a map of the world. Fortunately, the trip is remarkably cheap: a mere $1000 for a return trip. If interested travellers care to send me that meagre amount (multiplied, of course, by the number of people in their group), I’ll make a point of obtaining tickets as soon as possible.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Genealogical pilgrimages

My highfalutin title simply designates touristic travel excursions motivated by family-history interests. So, a good example of a genea-pilgrimage (as I shall call them) was the recent visit of my niece Indiya to places in northern London, described in my blog post entitled Looking back on a London century [display]. And I hope I’m not being pretentious in imagining that the publication of my two family-history books, A Little Bit of Irish and They Sought the Last of Lands, might end up increasing the popularity of genea-pilgrimages in the context of my family and relatives.

Obviously, since neither of my books has been written in the spirit of a tourist guide, the steps involved in moving from the books to down-to-earth excursion plans would necessitate some work. Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe I have the personal responsibility of facilitating this work in one way or another. After all, I’ve had a minimum of experience in the domain of tourist guidebooks, through my Great Britain Today [Jeune Afrique, Paris, 1978].


Let’s refer to such an excursion plan as a Genea-Pilgrimage Guide (GPG). Maybe I’ll place such GPGs in the webspaces that have housed, up until now, the PDF files of the chapters of my family-history books.

As dumb as they come

Lots of dumb folk, thinking themselves smart, send fake comments to my Antipodes blog, with links to their own dull blogs. In doing this, they hope that their comment will get published and bring traffic to their own blog. Here’s a nice example, which deserves a prize for stupidity:
Anonymous has left a new comment

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I'll definitely be back.

Feel free to surf to my homepage: buying nail clippers () 
It so happens that I did in fact write a book on the subject of my blog post, which is full of pictures. Fake comments of this kind get filtered and they end up rapidly, of course, in my trash can. So, my family-history research is not going to help this fuckwit to sell his nail clippers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Looking back on a London century

A century separates these two photos taken at exactly the same spot in a northern neighborhood of London.



The older lady was Martha Watson [1837-1915], while the young woman is Martha’s great-great-great-granddaughter Indiya Taylor, born in Australia. The following chart indicates that Martha’s married name was Mepham (which was loaded onto my unfortunate father as a second given name):


The second child, Eliza Jane Mepham, married a certain William Skyvington, as indicated in the following chart:


Their only child, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], went out to Australia in 1908 on a steamship named the Marathon.


Ernest, who was Indiya’s great-grandfather, became a prosperous businessman in Grafton (NSW), where he started up the Ford automobile dealership.


He once revisited the Old World and his native London in the company of his daughter Yvonne. In Paris, my wife Christine asked Pop (as we called him) to name the place that had most impressed him during his world tour. His reply: “Burleigh Heads.” That was the town on Queensland’s Gold Coast where he had been living in retirement for a decade or so. Pop had a great sense of humor, and that was his way of telling us that there’s no place like home. But the address that Indiya tracked down a few days ago was indeed Pop’s true home throughout his adolescence in London.


With technical assistance that I had obtained from historical authorities in London, Indiya was able to discover the quiet dead-end section of Mount Pleasant Crescent (called Mount Pleasant Road in Pop’s time) where the old Mepham house is currently numbered 72.


I’m amused by the symbolic aspects of the following photo, in which my lovely niece appears to be narrowing down her search for origins, while looking back upon a London century.


Incidentally, I should have normally published by now my genealogical book that talks about our London origins (amongst many other aspects of our family history). Its cover will look like this:


Publication is delayed, however, by fascinating last-minute news that I mentioned briefly in my recent post entitled White lies of men in love [display]. The potential “white liar” in question is the man whose name appears in the upper left-hand corner of the second chart: my great-grandfather William Skyvington. I’m hoping that the friends who have kindly revealed this curious affair—the Courtenay family in the UK—will be convinced that the only way of elucidating this enigma is to call upon modern science: namely, a Y-chromosome genealogical test.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring sunset

I took this lovely photo (untouched) from my bathroom window about an hour ago.


In my title, the term "sunset" is misleading, since we're actually looking towards the east, and the sun is setting behind us. But the last rays of the setting sun have hit the clouds above the Cournouze, producing the pastel hues seen in the photo.

Earlier on, towards the end of the afternoon, we had a short hailstorm at Gamone. It was interesting to see the seven donkeys racing down the hill to their shed, to seek shelter from the shower of tiny hailstones.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

White lies of men in love

In the context of my genealogical research, I was intrigued, if not amused, by the behavior of my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860], probably a Scottish Protestant, who maintained that he was an Irish Catholic, ostensibly in order to be able to wed a 17-year-old Tipperary nymph, 15 years his junior. Religion can't compete with sexual passion!

Recently, on the side of my paternal grandmother, I heard of the astonishing case of John Pickering [1851-1926] who decided to call himself "John Latton", enabling him to wed a new wife (while holding on to the original one) and to create an entire parallel family.

Yet another case of this kind was brought to my attention, unexpectedly, a couple of days ago. Here’s the only photo I have of Devon-born William Skyvington [born in 1868], my paternal great-grandfather.


And here’s a photo of William’s son, my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], in his general store in the Queensland outback.


Whenever I quizzed my grandfather about what might have happened to his father, he had no clear answers… apart from suggesting that William Skyvington may have died in World War I. Needless to say, I found that answer unsatisfactory, because my great-grandfather would have normally been too old to get enlisted as a soldier. So, I concluded that we would probably never know what had happened to him.

Yesterday afternoon, I received an astonishing e-mail from a lady whose maiden name was Nicola Courtenay. She told me that the second given name of her grandfather was somewhat strange. He called himself “William Skyvington Courtenay”. After examining the bits of data that Nicola had included in her e-mail, I realized beyond any doubt whatsoever that her alleged Courtenay ancestor was in fact my great-grandfather. In other words, after the premature death of his wife (my great-grandmother) in London, William Skyvington had succeeded in convincing a young woman—his future bride—that he was a descendant of the celebrated Courtenay family: the Earls of Devon. Clearly, William had fallen in love, and he took the liberty of inventing this white lie to make sure that he would capture his beloved female. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…


For a family historian, the annoying aspect of such identity changes is that there’s no obvious way of searching for them or even detecting their existence. There's no other method of discovering such an identity change than to receive an unexpected message from a total stranger. And shortly after such a contact, the “total stranger” has suddenly become one of your closest relatives, and an excellent friend. What a silly idea to imagine that genealogy is a matter of fossicking around among tombstones!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My son’s 3-day working holiday at Gamone

François Skyvington leads an extremely busy existence. Over the last few years, my son has been working almost non-stop on his 30-minute moped travel movies for TV. (The latest series will be aired on the Arte channel later on this year.) For the moment, he’s starting major building extensions to his house on the top of Brittany cliffs looking out over the English Channel. And he has also decided to create a high-quality diner-style restaurant alongside the main road between St-Brieuc and Paimpol. I therefore find it perfectly normal that François doesn’t necessarily have free time enabling him to drop down here to see me at Gamone. So, I was thrilled when he phoned me last week to say that he had decided to take the train from Guingamp to Valence for a 3-day stay. To get an idea of how long it was since the last time we had met up, you only need to know that, last Monday afternoon, François met my dog Fitzroy for the very first time.

In such circumstances, it goes without saying that I did not expect my son to spend any part of his precious holiday time in carrying out work around our house at Gamone. But I had not reckoned on the spontaneous desire of François to tackle all sorts of practical problems whose urgency he sensed immediately, as soon as he reached Gamone. First, it was a matter of reducing drastically the volume of the "bun" of branches (my son is preoccupied by BurgerTalk) on top of the pergola.





Finally, the 6 rose bushes composing the pergola looked like young Australian boys of my generation who had just emerged from a customary short-back-and-sides operation at the barber’s shop.


François then set about tidying up the Buxus sempervirens (European Boxwood) hedge that I planted long ago on the outer edge of my future rose garden.



François then set about pruning the various bushes of my rose garden.



He then tackled the huge task that consisted of removing all the wild vegetation (including lots of small trees) on the perimeter of my rose garden. You can detect the presence of this vegetation in the background of the above photos. To remove it, François used both my electric hedge-trimmer and my chainsaw. Thanks to my son's strenuous efforts, I can once again get a glimpse of the road that runs alongside Gamone Creek.

Finally, as if all that work were not enough, François drove the Renault Kangoo and trailer to a nearby quarry where we were able to gather up (manually) a stock of high-quality limestone slabs that will be an essential part of my future wood-fueled bread oven. Here you see François sitting on this nice little pile of stones, alongside the place where the oven will be built (this summer).


I was delighted to see that the relationship between my son and my dog was better than anything I might have hoped for. François was often amazed by Fitzroy’s serenity. Indeed, I like to imagine that my dog and I, through sharing constantly our experiences, are becoming similarly zen in parallel.