Sunday, 21 August 2011

All brawn and no brain?

The worst thing about holidays is that they end. Well, some holidays at least. I can think of one or two where I've been relieved to get home.

A case in point was a fortnight's canal trip around the 'Leicester Ring' in 1999. We had done brief narrow boat cruises before, but this was the big one. This was going to be two whole weeks of getting away from it all.

It rained almost non stop. The Other Half, insisting that the division of labour was traditional, did the driving bit, as this was, apparently, technical. I, as the woman, was assigned the locks.

Over a hundred of the bleedin' things, including a full flight at Foxton, where I had the pleasure of helping to provide the entertainment for the gongoozlers - those people who go and stand by locks and watch others do the hard slog.

In between, I made bacon buttes and mugs of tea, handing them up from the cabin for The Other Half to consume while driving us along. And spent much of the rest of the time sitting inside, away from the grey and the drizzle, trying to teach myself to play solitaire or reading a biography of Robert Kennedy.

The only thing I remember with pleasure was Eiffel 65's hit single, Blue, which was featuring heavily on the scratchy radio at the time.

I cooked in the evenings too, even though this was before my days of culinary please (let alone culinary know how), but this too seemed to be part of the supposedly fair division of labour. For some reason, I retain vague memories of sausages and peeling spuds and boring, bland vegetables.

In Leicester itself - a city I had carefully avoided since being invalided off my degree course some 17 years earlier - it peed down, illustrating how fanciful were the claims of the manufacturer of my kagool to have made something vaguely waterproof.

There I was, standing on the towpath, struggling with a lock that wouldn't budge, getting rapidly soaked and cursing aloud, while the self-appointed skipper told me to calm down.

We had set ourselves far too tight a schedule for a fortnight: there was no chance to spend a day moored up, talking to the teenage ducks and simply relaxing – or going ashore and visiting something – if we were to stand a chance of getting the boat back to the yard on time - which, as it happened, we didn't quite manage anyway.

'No,' I said later. 'Never again!'

Returning from France does not, however, involve the same sense of relief, strangely.

Don't get me wrong – I enjoy my work, I like my colleagues and I absolutely missed the cats.

But riot-torn Hackney sometimes lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. And it's expensive too. For the first time, I've realised how much more it costs for a loaf of decent bread in London than in the south of France.

A quarter of a large, round loaf cost us €1.40 in Collioure. A half cost me well over £3.50 yesterday. For three weeks, I ate the stuff happily; nibbling away and appreciating texture and taste, rarely needing – or wanting – anything on it.

Now even the artisan stuff seems mediocre. So not only can I now not enjoy the fruit I could out there, I have to pay considerably more for a decent version of that most basic commodity, a loaf of bread.

And yet, for all the cost, the reality is the same: in the UK, we spend a smaller percentage of our household income on food than anywhere else in Europe – and still think it's too much. And let's face it, I'm making an effort to buy the better stuff.

But it's not haute cuisine we're talking about here – hell, I can't even get brawn, or 'head cheese' as the French call it. Why? Because it was banned in the wake of the BSE outbreak – that disease caused because profit came before safety, and UK farmers were allowed not simply to feed the remains of sheep to those well-known bovine carnivores, but they were allowed to cook it at a lower temperature, thus making it cheaper, but not killing off the scrapie in the sheep.

But no, the problem wasn't this – the problem was brawn itself, so it has to be on the banned list for us Brits.

As as for the cheese ...

But markets in general are fascinating across the Channel. The produce might be cheaper – but they seem to take even more care over it. The way stalls are laid out, for instance, always delights me.

And just look how beautiful these little cheeses were at the quay side Sunday market in Bordeaux.

Perhaps it's expecting too much for common sense to prevail over brawn – just as it seems to be to hope for a culture in the UK where food is actually taken seriously and valued, and those who do this are not viewed as a wealthy and greedy minority.

Oh well ... I shall just have to knuckle down to an autumn of serious cooking to try to compensate for such joys as the bacon sandwich I had last week for breakfast one day, when my appetite got the better of my common sense and experience: cold, over-cooked bacon, on stale bread.

And people wonder why I rate France so highly ...

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