Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to improve your sight without glasses

This is a fabulous solution. You don’t have to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist or an optician. In fact, it costs you nothing.

Raising queen bees

Fabien and Melody are experienced beekeepers, who have recently installed a row of hives at Gamone, in a small sloping field just opposite the house of my neighbors Jackie and Fafa. Their current project consists of raising queen bees. Last Friday, the first step was to extract a stock of young larvae from their special-purpose hives at Gamone.

The young beekeepers then took time off for a snack on the edge of the Bourne at Choranche, near the small weir that channels water to the old Rouillard mill.

Finally, they drove to the lovely house of a professional beekeeper where they performed the delicate operation of inserting tiny larvae into queen cups.

Back at Gamone, these queen cups were installed in small hives, where young worker bees will hopefully feed the larvae with royal jelly.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celebrated Gerin elixir

In my blog post of 6 October 2012, entitled Pierrot wanted a wife [display], I spoke of the local Gerin family, one of whom, Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957], was the owner of my property at Gamone during the first half of the 20th century. I never knew exactly how Hippolyte earned his living on these beautiful but harsh Alpine slopes. Amazingly, the British scientist Richard Dawkins has provided a quite plausible answer. It would appear that members of that ancient family produced a celebrated elixir: a transparent narcotic substance that became known as Gerin Oil, which was beautifully bottled and marketed under the name Geriniol.

Click here to see Dawkins’s scholarly presentation of this strange affair.

PS Readers will have understood, I hope, that the terms "Gerin Oil" and "Geriniol" are simply anagrams of the word "religion". I guess that Dawkins invented this fine irony. I should explain, for those who are interested, that my Photoshopped bottle originally held a mythical liquid known (among believers) as "holy water". On the other hand, the Gerin people here at Gamone were perfectly real.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


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.