Thursday, July 26, 2012

Roast pork "Bangkok-en-Royans"

In France, in a butcher's shop or in the meat section of a supermarket, when you buy a piece of pork to be roasted, you generally get a rolled cylinder of lean pork sheathed in a thin layer of fat, tied up with string. That standard solution is not the only kind of pork to be roasted. Every Friday afternoon, a local pig farmer, Emmanuel Micolod, opens up his modern butcher's shop in a wing of his old stone farmhouse.

See his French-language website at Emmanuel's shop enables us to purchase cuts of top-quality pork and pork-based delicatessen foodstuffs. And you can phone up beforehand to make an appointment with Emmanuel's wife Maria Micolod to get your hair cut, in an adjoining wing of the farmhouse. (That's a frequent rendez-vous for my daughter Emmanuelle when she visits Gamone.)

For my roast pork, I simply ask for a big chunk of échine (shoulder). Back at home, I cut it into two or three strips, a few centimeters wide, then I call upon my magic Thai powder, purchased in the shop of a friendly Asian lady in Romans.

Apparently this is the product that Thais use to obtain their red roast pork. The pork is macerated in a solution made with this powder. The red color comes from the inoffensive E129 food dye, while the flavor is obtained from two strong spices: cinnamon and anise. Inevitably, like everything of this kind that comes out of Asia, there's some monosodium glutamate in the powder, but I don't see anything of a questionable nature in their list of ingredients. Once the pork has been macerated for a day or so, I simply slip the pieces into plastic bags and place them in my deep-freezer.

Before roasting, I let the piece of pork thaw out slowly in the sun. Then I placed it in a Pyrex dish and covered the meat in fresh bay leaves (from my vegetable garden). I roasted it slowly, for almost an hour, in an oven at 200°. And here's the final roast pork dish, which I've named "Bangkok-en-Royans":

The hot pork (straight out of the oven) is seasoned with green pepper grains and capers, and sprinkled lavishly with fleurs de sel and freshly-ground dried pepper grains of the Ducros 5 berries kind. The meat is accompanied by a few slices of my pickled walnuts macerated in honey and cherry brandy, and the greenery is simply tender parsley, straight out of my garden.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Exciting foot and leg wear

Recently, somewhere out in the wide wild world of fashion design, a genius came up with the following prototype:

Let's say that you could wear these shoes, for example, when you're out on a surfboard in the waters off the West Australian coast, waiting for a wave. There's no way in the world that a big hungry fish might try to snap off your snappy shoes, chained safely to your shins.

I imagine an elegant high-end steel-gray version of this footwear: the jailbird model.

Curiously, after their brilliant prototype, the designers of the Adidas model seem to have run out of imagination. They could have easily added extra chains, in colorful hues, extending up to the wearer's wrists and—why not?—his stupid neck.

Suddenly I'm reminded of a trivial but true anecdote, many years ago, in the family flat of our concierge (guardian) in the rue Rambuteau. One of the youths was trying to lower a heavy bed from a first-floor window to the pavement in the courtyard, several meters below the window. To support the weight of the bed, he had coiled the ropes around his shoulders and neck. All of a sudden, he lost his grip on the ropes, and the big bed jolted downwards until it was suspended in the air about two meters above the surface of the courtyard. Meanwhile, the ropes had tightened around the fellow's neck, and he was choking for breath. We terrified onlookers lost precious seconds while we climbed onto chairs and boxes to take the weight of the bed, enabling the silly bugger to unwind the noose that was strangling him and get loose. In fact, he had a few screws loose, as they say. Fascinated by firemen, he always got around in the rue Rambuteau wearing bits and pieces of a fireman's uniform... in spite of the fact that no self-respecting unit of firemen would ever accept such fellow in their ranks.


I learn with interest that kangatarianism is a new nutritional approach, popular in my native land, which consists of avoiding all meat... with a single exception: kangaroo meat.

Critics have claimed that kangatarianism tends to make its adepts somewhat jumpy, but I reckon that negative remarks of that kind come from jealous folk in remote lands such as Europe, Asia and the Americas where you can't simply step outside and get yourself a roo steak. (In retarded Australia, ordinary citizens don't have the right to carry guns, so the only legal do-it-yourself approach to catching a roo is to use your automobile.)

But the automobile approach can be more messy and costly than using an old-fashioned gun.

Talking about guns, it was only this morning that I learned about the existence of this fabulous weapon, made in the USA.

It's called the Bug-a-Salt (pronounced "bug assault"), it's not expensive, and I immediately ordered one. The following video demonstrates the power of this new kind of arm.

Personally, I can't work at my computer when there's a fly or a wasp buzzing overhead, nor can I go to sleep of an evening in such circumstances. I've always got a can of toxic spray alongside my desk, my dinner table and my bed. But I've never liked the idea of breathing in such shit. So, I'm all excited about soon becoming the proud owner of a high-tech Bug-a-Salt weapon. Already, I can sense that it's going to change my daily existence...

Maybe they have a superior model that would work on snakes, spiders, cane toads, etc. Maybe they might even look into the possibility of designing an effective hunting weapon for kangatarians.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to tell us kids that the best way to catch a wild bird was to sprinkle some salt on its tail. It's amazing to discover that an old-fashioned piece of "bush knowledge" such as that, handed down orally from one generation to the next, was in fact scientifically sound, and has finally been translated into an advanced technological device such as the Bug-a-Salt.


The Domesday Survey was commissioned by King William I in 1086, two decades after the Battle of Hastings and the start of the Conquest. Today, the original Domesday Book is housed at Britain's National Archives in Kew, located about 15 km to the west of the heart of London (midway between the city and Heathrow airport).

Domesday has been wrongly described, at times, as a census. In fact, it was a nation-wide audit carried out for the assessment of taxes due to the king. The only human individuals whose names appeared in Domesday were noblemen and upper-class citizens who owned land. And, in the rigid class system that has always characterized England, ever since the Norman Conquest, these landholders formed a tiny minority of people.

You can examine the original Latin of the Domesday Book—filled with abbreviations and featuring all sorts of mysterious handwriting quirks—at the following fine website:

To understand what it's all about, I've just purchased the excellent English transcription of the Domesday Book published by Penguin, which arrived here in yesterday's mail.

I spent the entire evening studying the Leicestershire chapter, in the hope of receiving inspiration in my quest for the identity of the Skeffington patriarch.

From the outset, I've been obliged to discard a few false ideas:

— Back in those days, you couldn't become a landholder simply by saving up a few hundred quid (like my father did, out in Australia), and then waiting around for an attractive property to come up for sale. Things didn't work that way in ancient England. A prospective landholder had to be a distinguished individual (preferably a member of the nobility) with friends in very high places (preferably in the royal circle). Then, if you belonged to the Chosen Few, you might be granted land, like manna from heaven. Literally: a manor from above.

— The men, women and children who actually worked the land were all members of the vast category of peasants, whose nature and numbers varied considerably. But they had one thing in common: It was unthinkable that a peasant might rise in a spectacular fashion to the status of a landholder. Back in those days, there were no fairy-tales, and no inspiring stories of slaves breaking their bonds, or pioneers breaking their backs and providing demonstrations of what would be known later on (in the 19th century) as the Protestant Work Ethic.

— Prominent citizens such as the Skeffingtons of Skeffington (who appeared explicitly on the scene as early as 1164) didn't simply emerge from the mud, or crawl out of the woodwork of Skeffington Hall. It's possible that they were there all along, in Leicestershire, ever since the days of the Conqueror. If not, then we must accept the idea (less likely, to my mind) that they were distinguished Norman emigrants with powerful friends in high places in England.

— Last but not least, if the late Viscount Massereene, head of the Skeffington family, once told me that "the Skeffingtons came over with William I from Normandy and were granted land in Leicestershire at Skeffington", then maybe I should respect his words, instead of believing (as I have done for years) that he was simply talking snobbishly through his hat. If there seems to be no explicit evidence of future Skeffingtons accompanying the Conqueror, maybe this simply means that I haven't searched hard enough...

Last night, I made an effort to browse through the Leicestershire chapter in the Domesday Book like a Sherlock Holmes trying to dig up evidence. First, I pursued a perfectly simple and sound idea. In the centuries that followed the Conquest, we learn that the Skeffingtons possessed land, not only in the ancestral village of Skeffington, but in neighboring villages such as Billesdon and Rolleston (both of which lie a few kilometers from Skeffington). So, in looking for the elusive patriarch, we should investigate Doomsday landholders in such places. (Let me remind you that the unique landholder in the village of Skeffington, as indicated unequivocally in the Domesday Book, was King William I himself!)

Another approach is to use the familiar family-history trick that consists of following up given names that would appear to be traditional and popular in certain contexts. Inversely, whenever certain given names are totally absent within a family-history context that concerns us, then we can probably rule out possible ancestors who carried such names. Recently, this trick helped me greatly in the case of 17th-century Skevingtons and Skivingtons named George. In the context of Leicestershire after the Conquest, there were Norman families with given names such as Hugh, Roger, Bertram and Ralph. But I don't recall ever meeting up with these given names within a Skeffington family. So, I'm not inclined to imagine any genealogical links at this level.

Among the early Skeffingtons, there's no doubt that Geoffrey was a traditional and popular given name. Besides, as I said, later Skeffingtons inherited lands at Billesdon. Putting these two clues together, I was interested to find a section of Domesday that describes the land of Geoffrey Alselin in Leicestershire. The transcription reads:
Geoffrey Alselin holds of the king 6 carucates of land in Hallaton, and Norman [holds] of him.
The same Norman holds of Geoffrey 12 carucates of land in Billesdon.
Of this land, 3 knights hold 7.5 carucates...
The  same Norman holds of Geoffrey 10 carucates of land in Rolleston.
Taki held all this land with sake and soke.
Since a carucate was about 120 acres, this fellow named Norman, apparently a friend of Geoffrey Alselin, was in charge of a few big properties all around Skeffington. All this land was seized from a certain Saxon named Taki, the son of Auti. Maybe (I'm inclined to say certainly) Auti and his son Taki had been members of Sceaft's people, who gave their name to the future Norman village of Skeffington. What's more, Norman wasn't all alone as the new lord of the land. Alongside him, in Billesdon, there were three knights in charge of smaller properties. So, all of this sounds very much like a situation involving a nobleman who was a friend of the king (Geoffrey Alselin), his slightly less noble tenant named Norman, and several knights who probably fought for the Conqueror. And, in one way or another, from this community, there emerged a gentleman named Geoffrey de Sceftington who went down in our medieval family history, in 1164/5, as having fully paid an unidentified debt ("he is quit") of 15 shillings and 6 pence.

Incidentally, when Domesday says that Taki held all this land with sake and soke, it sounds a little as if Taki called upon the help of two mates, Sake and Soke. In fact, "with sake and soke" is a common but fuzzy medieval legal expression meaning vaguely that Taki had the right to act, within his domain, as a public prosecutor and judge. [Please correct me if I'm wrong, or if you can explain this expression more correctly and clearly.]

As a guess, I would conclude that one of Geoffrey Alselin's daughters (visiting or living in Billesdon, Rolleston or Hallaton) was probably impregnated by either Norman or one of the three anonymous knights. Later, with help from the girl's father, that new family acquired land in the neighboring village of Skeffington. Finally, Geoffrey de Sceftington would have been a descendant, born in the first quarter of the 12th century, whose given name was meant to recall the noble Alselin forebear. That sounds plausible, no? This is no doubt as close as I've ever come (and maybe as close as I shall ever come) to the possible identification of our Skeffington patriarch.

In any case, for the moment, I'll continue to use this charming little drawing of Norman knights as the cover illustration of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Kitchen pliers

Do you mean to say that you use a pair of pliers when you're preparing a meal in the kitchen?

Yes, they're ideal for removing the last few bones from slabs of fresh salmon.

And that's helpful in the preparation of my sushi dish.

Maybe you're trying to identify those strange dark circular slices in the middle, surrounding the squirt of hot-as-hell wasabi. They're pickled walnuts. In fact, I picked green walnuts just a few weeks ago, pricked them and soaked them in brine for a week or so to remove the toxicity, let them dry in the sun for three or fours days, and then placed them in a mixture of clear pine honey and kirsch (cherry brandy) to macerate.

From my bathroom window

Often, when I look out through my bathroom window, I'm surprised to find an aircraft looking back at me.

It would be nice to know the preoccupations—the nature of the missions—of such visitors. But it would be hard to acquire such information. And hardly worthwhile. Most often, the aircraft disappear just as rapidly as they arrived on the scene.

I'm always a little worried, though, that low-flying aircraft might get tangled up in hard-to-see power cables that crisscross the Bourne valley. My late friend Adrian Lyons—a skilled pilot until he went down in England on 1 August 1999—once told me that this danger is indeed very real at Choranche.

Meaning in images

You're familiar, of course, with these two famous images:

Bart Simpson and his sister Lisa.

Now, close your eyes and form the following image in your mind. Bart has unzipped his blue shorts and pulled out his pecker. His adorable wide-eyed sister has leaned down in front of him and started to give her brother a tender Olympian blowey... as they say in the sporting classics. Specialists (elsewhere on the Internet) have suggested that this incongruous composite image might look something like this:

You've recognized, of course, the logo of the forthcoming Olympics in London.

One might wonder what the athletes in the Olympic Village are going to be doing in their spare time, when they're not actually competing. Training, of course...

Friday, July 20, 2012


Fitzroy doesn't usually make a lot of noise. When he's playing with Moshé and Fanette, he barks a lot in the hope of impressing the donkeys. Then he's no doubt dismayed to discover that his barking doesn't impress them at all. So, whenever he wants to startle the donkeys, Fitzroy adopts the surprise-arrival technique, which consists of creeping up on the drowsy animals, suddenly appearing from nowhere and leaping in front of them... which usually creates the desired effects. In general, whenever Fitzroy is confronted with any kind of unfamiliar phenomenon, he tends to sink onto his belly so that he can study the situation calmly at ground level. During this kind of observation phase (which Fitzroy even applies to me when I return to Gamone after a shopping excursion), the dog remains perfectly motionless. Then, when he has successfully analyzed the situation, he promptly wags his tail, while still laying flat on the ground, indicating that the meditation operations are terminated.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, besides his normal barking, Fitzroy is capable of producing a quite fabulous sound. He can howl like a wolf! But he only does this in special circumstances, when he has encountered an exceptional situation... such as the presence of roe deer, for example, on the slopes opposite the house. When he starts to howl, Fitzroy throws his head back, stretches his neck and seems to be gazing at the heavens. As for sound itself, it's blood-curdling (as they say in the classics), but particularly fascinating when you have the privilege of being just alongside the howling beast. Well, yesterday, finding that Fitzroy was emitting a halfhearted howl (I forget why), I decided to see if I could encourage him. So, I did my best to imitate Fitzroy imitating a wolf. Miracle, it worked. Fitzroy was thrilled to find his master howling like an aging wolf with laryngitis, and he promptly howled back at me. Every time I croaked out a feeble howl, Fitzroy responded like an opera star. But he soon lost interest in the game.

Today, I succeeded twice in getting him started again. Tomorrow I'll get together some kind of reward system, such as chunks of cheese. Maybe there's a future for us on the stage of a Riviera cabaret, or on TV. But the situation can be embarrassing whenever Fitzroy has decided that enough is enough. If a visitor were to drop in at Gamone at such a moment, and find me howling ridiculously in front of a silent dog, I might have some psychiatric questions to answer.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

British trick

There are rumors that Her Majesty's Guards are recruiting certain exceptional sportsmen with the aim of putting together a top-level basketball team, in the hope of challenging the USA.

Meanwhile, the Coldstream Guards hit upon the diabolical scheme of using one of their top basketball-players (whose identity cannot be determined, since his eyes are hidden behind the rim of his busby) in order to humiliate an unpopular foreign visitor—the perfectly normal president François Hollande—by making him look like a dwarf.

Back in the good old days when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, his buddy David Cameron didn't need to use this kind of nasty trick.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bugged bells

Yesterday morning, at around 11 o'clock, I was surprised to hear the chimes of the Angelus ringing out across the Bourne Valley from the church in Châtelus.

I imagined that a marriage was probably taking place in the village. At midday, my neighbor Madeleine and her sister Paulette had invited me down for lunch. The first thing that Madeleine said to me was: "The bells of Châtelus are broken." What she meant was that the electronic timing device that was normally programmed to produce the chimes twice daily, at midday and at 7 o'clock in the evening, had gone haywire, and the Angelus was now being rung in a random fashion, at any hour of the day or night. I was reminded of the Parisian teashop that displayed a sign in the window announcing proudly that they were able to serve English-style "four o'clock tea" to clients "at all hours of the day". Clearly, for a pious and practicing Catholic such as Madeleine, the messages delivered by the electronic chimes had a more profound sense than the mere musicality that charmed my atheistic ears. Consequently, the fact that the bells were bugged disturbed her in the same way that my day is messed up whenever the Internet goes down.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The first second

Yesterday was a giant day for human knowledge. Scientists working at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva announced that the Higgs boson appears to be a reality. We are surely on the right path towards grasping (albeit fuzzily) what took place during the crucial early instants of the first second after the Big Bang. During those infinitesimal fractions of the primeval second, there must have been a tiny disturbance in ubiquitous symmetry that enabled Existence (with a capital E) to come into existence. And that moment of creation was associated with the advent of the Higgs boson.

The spirit of the hunt for this particle is well presented in the following 60-minute BBC program, produced about six months ago:

We can expect that great results will emerge soon from the LHC in the fundamental domain of supersymmetry.

Truly, I have had the privilege of living during an exciting period of human history. In 1953, when I was a 12-year-old kid starting science studies at Grafton High School, the structure of DNA was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson. That was a fabulous moment in biology. Yesterday's announcement concerning the existence of the Higgs boson was an equally great moment in cosmology.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Not the answer

Last October, in a blog post titled Walnut harvest [display], I spoke with enthusiasm of a promising solution for storing my annual walnut harvest, using light-weight plastic containers that can be folded flat when empty.

[Click to enlarge]

I filled the containers with walnuts, sealed the carrying slots with tape, and placed them in my stone-walled cellar. Well, it turned out to be a totally unsatisfactory solution. The other day, when I thought about preparing a walnut cake, I was shocked to find that last year's stock of walnuts had been reduced to a few empty shells. I have the impression that Fitzroy, too, was disgusted by the mess.

At first sight, I couldn't understand how unidentified rodents had succeeded in entering the containers, and apparently carrying away most of the walnuts. The tape blocking the carrying slots was intact, and the top of the upper container had been covered. When I looked more closely, I soon discovered what had gone wrong. The mysterious rodent(s) had simply gnawed through a few thin plastic bars... in the classical style of a jail inmate escaping from his cell.

Once this hole existed, it was an easy matter for the rodent family to feast upon the walnuts, and to carry them away to their secret lair.

Maybe a high-tech solution might consist of inventing rodent-proof plastic. But the right stuff exists already: it's called steel. So, goodbye flimsy plastic! That's to say, between now and my next walnut harvest, I intend to design and build the perfect walnut container: a kind of steel mesh cage with sturdy drawers made of slats of wood (for the aeration). I assure you, it will be a masterpiece!