Watchfires

1 February 2011, morning

Watchfire

In my last entry, I wrote of our happiness and increased feeling of security now that we have moved to our friends near the pyramids.

When it was properly dark the men and the young men went to the bottom of the garden to stand guard. The family lives in a communal  compound of three houses with the grandparents in one, a set of parents and their two children in another, and another couple and their daughter in the third. Next door in another plot live a brother-in-law with and his family and his parents. The property has two entrances which, in the current circumstances, present a bit of a problem. One entrance is at the end of a cul de sac, and we rely on the neighbours who maintain a vigil at the top of the street. The garden entrance is on an unlit, unpaved and unpatrolled road. This is where the perceived threat is and this is where the watchfire has been lit each night since Friday, 28 January.

The women and girls stayed in watching TV for a couple of hours and then went out to join the men. A small fire burned in the street creating a barrier to any passing car. The men and the gardeners were armed with big sticks, trimmed and shaped over the past nights. The sticks are physically beautiful and redolent with meaning. Passing cars are stopped and the password requested. Yesterday it was bowaba – gate. Today it is shagaa – courage.

A couple of cars passed, one with a man carrying a machine gun. A neighbour paid $2500 a night for armed guards. Periodically gunshots are fired as warnings. One, two or many. We listen for three, which might mean the shots come from an intruder.

After a couple of hours we went in for a fix of talk shows. The men did another shift but women were sent home to bed.

At night we turn off all lights except in the one room where the TV is and like the rest of world are glued to BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

The neighbourhood watch, militias, or what ever you want to call them are amazing. Good humor, camaraderie, and respect characterise the interactions. Everyone is greeted with the usual salutation — Peace be with you. The incomer responds, “And also with you.” The temperature is taken, information exchanged and the car drives on. The dignity and respect accorded others is one the most impressive qualities in the Arab world.

I mused on communications during the American War of Independence and of how neighbors worked together for something bigger than themselves while taking responsibility for their own security.

I am honored to be witnessing these transformational events.

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Posted in Egypt uprising | 1 Comment

Cairo News

The Barricades

31 January 2011

Today our daughter and I moved location. We had felt somewhat exposed in our flat as there were only two or three other families in the building and only one was Egyptian. This means that except for the Egyptians no one has a wide network of friends and compatriots to lend support. We paid our bowab (doorman and super) for January and gave him about $100 extra to keep an eye on our place. The banks are closed; ATMs aren’t working. He and his wife were was very appreciative. I hope I don’t need any dosh.

We have packed up clothes, important papers, silver and jewelry and the technology – chargers, adapters, phones and computers. We don’t know when we’ll be back.

We have had no TV since Friday morning and no Internet except on my UK phone. Texting doesn’t work on Egyptian lines at present. Antony is in London monitoring accounts and communicating on our behalf.

Things seemed calm overnight, and we thought we would come to our friends for awhile. The drive was shocking. Tanks with friendly troops, some special forces dressed for all the world like ninja turtles, a few signs of destruction and rioting. No traffic at all. No pollution either. Barricades had been set up along the way; one impediment was a large sewer pipe three meters in diameter plonked in the middle of the road. One of our concerns was that we were very near a jail from which prisoners had killed the officer in charge and escaped.

It is a welcome relief being with friends in their beautiful garden. We passed a pleasant afternoon in the shade of a lemon tree, then ate lunch al fresco. The announcement of the new parliament disappoints. Same old, same old. There is widespread disbelief that Mubarak is persisting. These will be ministers for a week or two. A number of talented former ministers have turned down appointments.

Tank on the drive from Maadi

There is an expectation that Obama will be needed to send a direct message that Mubarak needs to go. That this is not happening is explained by Israel’s desire to live with the devil they know. Unless the US speaks clearly and soon, they will miss this opportunity to redeem themselves.

There is widespread concern about the economic consequences of a protracted disturbance. “How will we make payroll?” “This has set us back 10 years.” Two of our friends returned after visiting Tahrir square. They were very moved. Rich and poor. Religious and not. All were there to express their dissatisfaction with the government and the conditions.

We are on both the UK and US government lists, should we decide to leave. The prospect of spending days at the airport, cut off from information again, and taking us away from our friends and this country we love — at this historic moment — is incentive enough to stay a bit longer. If things get significantly worse, we will leave, of course. But for now we are happy to be with friends and watching an important period in Egypt’s history.

It us evening now. Gunshots from homeowners stake their territory and discourage the chancer. Men and youth take turns standing guard. A campfire with marshmallows will provide cheer and warmth during the cold night.

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Don’t worry, be happy

Straight out — Food is not, by a long shot, the best thing about living in Egypt. I hope to be able, as this blog continues, to write about some of the more successful dishes and ingredients here. In the meantime, I’m still compiling the memories and notes of our holiday in France.

The absence of a great cuisine here in Cairo increases, exponentially, the anticipation of going to a country like France. So where to eat on our first meal? Antony picked me up at the airport in Paris, and we drove south towards Nîmes. When we have made this journey previously, with a UK departure and a crossing thanks to the marvel of the Channel Tunnel, we can usually reach Burgundy — perhaps driving as far as Beaune — in one day. Knowing we could get father with a starting point of Paris, I began looking at the restaurant guides, targeting the area just south of Lyon, which is the psychological watershed in the north/south France divide. The inevitable traffic congestion and the scary tunnel through Lyon have made the city a rampart that must be breached.

As I scanned the guidebooks the obvious choice leapt out. La Pyramide in Vienne. How could a couple of Cairenes not stay there?

The Roman monument, La Pyramide, in Vienne

We pulled up to the secure car park (one of Antony’s requirements for ease of mind) after driving at a snail’s pace in a traffic queue for 45 minutes once we had left the motorway.  For a Friday evening, Vienne seemed strangely busy. We checked into our room, which was adequate, although red peppers as a decor theme is not my idea of restful. It vaguely reminded me of a Mexican restaurant. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before dinner. Other rooms are more tranquil themes — lavender, thyme, laurel.

La Pyramide with its kitchen store

A history of the restaurant conveniently placed in the room reveals the eaterie  has been a food mecca since the 1920s. In Michael Korda’s Charmed Lives, he mentions that Sir Alexander Korda would travel out of his way to dine at La Pyramide in the 1930s. It’s been brought back to life by Patrick Henriroux, who has earned two stars from the Guide Michelin. The room bumpf also alerted us to the kitchen store attached to the hotel. What a great idea! If foodies are showing up, they’ll surely drop a few quid on nifty kitchen gadgets. We did.

At reception, Antony had picked up a brochure which explained the earlier traffic jam — we had arrived in the midst of the Vienne Jazz Festival, an event well know to aficionados. While waiting for the lift to take us down to dinner, a cool dude ambles up, humming. Antony asks, “Are you a jazz man?” Cool dude with very long dreadlocks replies in an American accent, “Yes I am,”  and continues humming.

Garden and Terrace at La Pyramide

Bobby McFerrin

We are seated in a wonderful shaded courtyard surrounded by hotel buildings and roofed by the spread of massive plane trees. Cool dude and two others are seated at a table next to us — although there is plenty of space between tables and conversations can’t be overheard. Antony thumbs the program and whispers, “That’s Bobby McFerrin.” I look blank. “You know, he did Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Oh! I get it. And he’s eating his pre-performance meal (large gambas). The terrace fills up with other travelers stopping on their way south as well as the gentry of Vienne, or jazz lovers, out for a special night.

We order the house aperitif — Champagne with raspberry juice and eau de vie of thyme. Lovely. It begins to sink in that we are truly in France… no car noise, no pollution, no paralyzing heat. We try to make sense of the wine list and ask for guidance in choosing a wine of the northern Rhône. We ended up with a sumptuous Côte Rôtie, which begins our long slow slide into the pace of life in the south of France. We opt for the middle menu — not the grande bouffe, neither the restrained market menu.

Lobster tail, imprisoned.

The first course is a lobster tail encased in some kind of gelatin shell. Next to it a layered salad of avocado, grapefruit in Campari and rouges zébra tomatoes (which are green striped). The lobster wrapped in a translucent gelatin sheath looked somewhat strange. It all tasted good — a nice balance of fresh flavors which complemented each other. But give me a steamed Maine lobster any day, shell and all.

Egg ravioli in broth with beans and truffles

The next course is a ravioli of egg yolk, summer truffles, fresh shell beans, artichokes in a bouillon with an emulsion of olive oil. A fork bursts the ravioli pastry allowing the egg yolk to run into the hot broth — wonderful! The earthiness and meatiness of the beans contrasts with the richness of the egg yolks, all perfumed by the truffles. A wildly successful first course. I love fresh beans, and this is undoubtedly the most elegant and sophisticated dish involving beans I have ever had.

John Dory with a trio of tomatoes

At this point Antony and my meals diverge. I choose the fish course, a filet of Saint Pierre (John Dory) with a tapenade of sweet olives served on a bed of red, yellow and green tomatoes with thyme. The fish is perfectly cooked, but the acidity of the tomatoes overwhelms its delicate flavor. The dish is neither balanced nor exciting — it could just as easily have been a piece of fish with a fresh tomato sauce. It certainly looked pretty, but that’s not enough to save it.

Veal with girolles

Antony eschews the fish for the meat option: veal with girolles and confit shallots, potatoes and young beetroot cooked in sherry vinegar. He was pleased and said the meat was very tender.

Then comes the cheese trolley! Splendid. Truly wonderful cheeses from the region as well as the famous ones of France — Camembert, Conté, Roquefort — along with all the accoutrements, dried figs, jams, walnuts.

The cheese trolley

Cheese trolley part 2

A fruit dessert completes the meal. I’m not much of a dessert person, and fruit desserts are really not my favorite so I didn’t relish this. Strawberries with rhubarb on a fresh cheese biscuit with strawberry and violet sorbet. Again, the balance is off. The dish is too acidic and dominated by the taste of red fruit.

Throughout the meal, the service was somewhat fussy — we must have been offered bread ten times — and by three or four different waiters. In truly great restaurants, the waiters know how to help you enjoy your evening, with a comment here or there, facilitating interaction. At La Pyramide there were clearly some well-trained and professional waiters, but others seemed awkward and others clearly lacked experience.

I would return to La Pyramide if the journey called for a stop in Vienne. Next time, however, I would order more carefully, probably à la carte. The first course was exceptional, and the cheese board memorable; the setting is very beautiful and convenient. Nevertheless, there is something somewhat self-conscious and forced about the entire ambience, the food and the service.

La Pyramide at night

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Back to the Market: Les Halles de Nîmes

Olives, tapenade and brandade de Nîmes

Les Halles de Nîmes. Ley Al. Not Leyzal. No liaison, my French teacher reminds me. Where we provision the kitchen.

Sometimes I go with a shopping list, intent on ingredients for soupe au pistou, or ratatouille, or pasta con le sarde. More often I go with an idea — barbeque or fish. Sometimes the day of the week is a factor in what I buy. The market is poor only on Monday, with many stalls closed. Since fisherman don’t take their boats out on Sunday, we don’t buy fish until Tuesday. I have the most fun, however, when I go without a list and wander around scanning for what looks best. Meanwhile Antony parks himself at the café.

The café

Funnily enough, Sunday is a great day for shopping, with the stalls bursting with produce, alluring displays of prepared foods, and glass cases filled with fresh meat or cheese. Over the last few years we have seen the growing gentrification of Les Halles de Nîmes. This year there are new stands selling filled pasta (figs with Parma ham was a great success), Spanish hams and charcuterie, as well as fresh empañadas (chorizo, tuna, meat), lovely desserts including assortments of macaroons. More organic (bio, pronouced b.o.) vegetables, fruits and meat are on offer than ever before.

The rice man of Les Halles

On one of our last trips, as I was buying dried beans and rice to bring back to Cairo, I stood transfixed in front of the fishmonger’s. The razor clams (couteaux) were fresh, fat and completely alluring; I bought a dozen for lunch. I sautéed garlic in olive oil, added the clams, then doused with a bit of white wine and parsley. They were delicious, tender and sweet with the hint of the sea.

Razors in the pan

Razor clams for lunch

Here are pictures of some of our favorite stalls at Les Halles:

Olives

Octopus

Onions and a potato rainbow

The brochette de canard (duck kebabs) are excellent

Fancy delicacies

Candied fruits

Spanish ingredients

The new pasta man, just arrived from Torino

The bounty of the south of France

Crustacés et Coquillages

Five or more varieties of tomatoes -- all packed with flavor

Ready-whipped cream -- and flan and fresh cheese

And to finish, le fromage

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Jude’s Walk

Several years ago we hosted a friend recovering from foot surgery. Exercise was prescribed and it wasn’t to be just swimming. Every morning, she would set off around 8 am, quite a feat if our imbibing had gone late into the night, to explore the neighborhood.

One day she returned from her perambulations thrilled because she had fulfilled the requirements of a group walk — circular, shaded in parts, interesting architecture and a great view. The result was dubbed — Jude’s Walk.

After a short, sharp shock of an incline, the walk descends to the Calvas road and rises up to the flood defences, then further up through the terrain militaire without ever breaching a Danger de Mort sign, to a fire watchtower overlooking the Gorges du Gardon. It finishes with a stroll through les hauts de Nîmes, the walls and gardens abutting the roads which return to l’impasse where we live. In the early morning hours, dogs barked a greeting, joined by a donkey and a chorus of cockerels.

This year I led our visitors along this trail — and thanks to the Mistral — at a more civilized hour, in the late morning and late afternoon. The Mistral has blown away all the hot haze, and we could see the expanse to the north from Mont Ventoux in the east (Le Drôme) to Pic St. Loup in the Languedoc (west).

View of Gorges du Gardon

Pic St. Loup in the distance

The other day we drove towards Uzès, across the gorge, and hiked up the hills on the other side of the ravine. We left from our friends’ house in Vic to walk up to the viewpoint.

The landscape in this area is called la garrigue — scrub oaks, wild fennel, gorse, thistle — harsh, thorny plants that can live in this unforgiving terrain of rocky soil. The scents of the herbs and flowers waft up, mixing with the dry dust of the parched soil.

View from Castellas

Walk to Castellas

View to east from Castellas

The poverty of the soil and the stunted vegetation on the garrigues contrasts sharply with the abundance in the markets and in the quality of life in the Gard.

Posted in France, The natural world | 1 Comment

Writing and Ratatouille

My first written language was French, and like children in écôles everywhere, I learned at the age of five to do joined-up writing, as the Brits would say, or cursive as the Americans call it. When I started  second grade in the US, my teacher couldn’t cope with this aberration (the rest of the pupils would not learn this skill until third grade); she insisted that I print. I blame my miserable handwriting on all this chopping and changing!

The French publish entire books in joined-up writing — for adults as well as children. The French editions of the Babar series use joined-up writing; the US editions are printed in an innocuous serif typeface. My first cookbook, La cuisine et un jeu d’enfants, (Cooking is Child’s Play), used this same script typeface as does my favorite summer cookbook, Recettes en Provence by Andrée Maureau. I find this old-fashioned, friendly script creates an accessible and friendly text — easy for a child to read, easy for a cook to access. The whimsical drawings add to the charm.

Ratatouille

Here is my translation of the recipe:

“Ratatouille is one of the most famous dishes. Each house has its recipe, and each recipe its own particular taste.

It’s up to you to add others.

It is tradition that you start cooking all the vegetables separately the night before. Frankly, that’s the secret of a great tasting dish.

Courgettes/zucchini: 1 kg
Aubergines/eggplants: 1.5 kg
Tomatoes: 1.5 kg
Red peppers: 1 kg
Onions: 500 g
Garlic: 3 cloves
Salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, olive oil

Cook all the vegetables separately for 30 minutes in olive oil. [The recipe calls for them to be peeled first, but I don’t do this step.] Peel, seed and press the tomatoes.

Add all the cooked vegetables together in a pan. There’s no need to add additional olive oil. Add the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another 30 minutes.

Delicious hot or cold.”

[This really does take more than an hour to cook. Each vegetable takes 20 minutes or so… It’s another great idea to involve all the would be consumers in the preparation, as with soupe au pistou.]

Back to typefaces and fonts. The BBC recently ran an interesting story about typefaces here. In choosing a serif typeface, I often choose one that has nonaligned numbers, like these — 123456789.

Posted in France, Reading, Recipes | 1 Comment

Rural bliss

There are many ways to find a good restaurant; a personal recommendation from someone whose taste you respect or understand offers you the surest chance of a happy meal. In my travels as a child, when we would arrive in a new town, my father used to ask a policeman (to make sure the establishment was safe), a pharmacist (to make sure it was hygienic) and then look for an eatery where either a nun or a prostitute was dining alone (because they recognize good value). Not sure how often he found the latter criterion.

In any case it never seemed to get us much further along in our quest for our next meal; I remember wandering round and round London’s Soho, looking for an authentic Italian and finding instead sex shop after sex shop. Same story in Frankfurt, once upon a time. Friends give more focused and tested advice.

Restaurant guides have their place, of course, as you conduct your research. Somehow they often miss out the flavor, the character, of a place. Zagats, Time Out, Michelin and Gault Millau each offer a particular perspective. A dear friend introduced me to a French restaurant guide of young, hip, new chefs — Carnet de route omnivore — which has led Antony and me to some interesting finds.

The most interesting guide to dining in France came as a supplement in a newspaper one November when we were in Paris. Lefooding.com Your French needs to be fairly au courant as it is written in a very colloquial language. We found wonderful restaurants, bistros and brasseries, at affordable prices. These are eateries which had not yet made it to Michelin’s Le Guide Rouge.

Several years ago both LeFooding.com and Le Carnet recommended a restaurant in a small village between our house and Uzès — Le Tracteur in Sanilhac. The local locksmith endorsed their suggestion, harking back to my father’s dictat of asking “real people.” This simple establishment has excellent food, simply cooked and served with no pretensions. The staff are friendly, absorb recommendations, and help make the whole experience enjoyable. It reminds me of Alastair Little and his superb cookbook and message, Keep it Simple, now sadly out of print. Nevermind, find it in a used bookstore. Paired with the simplicity is an astonishing level of creativity and good solid technique. By now Le Tracteur has reached into les grandes guides and has an inspirational write-up in the 2010 Gault Millau guide. The French have an expression for a restaurant that is just right — Très correct.

The formula is simple — 26 Euros for three courses with a choice of two dishes for each course. There is either a soup or a complex salad for a first course and generally meat or a fish choice for the main course. Le crumble, which makes a regular appearance as a dessert, takes advantage of the delicious and ripe fruits of the region. A chocophile friend is devoted to the chocolate brownie.

Numa Testud, the chef, is a young guy, with a loyal following of staff and patrons. He doesn’t construct the menu until around 6 pm — and bases it on the fresh ingredients he’s found in the nearby markets. His food is grounded in locality — and there may be fancier restaurants nearby, but none quite so real and honest. He buys natural wines from up-and-coming vintners and sells them at caviste prices — and you can take away the wines if you are so inclined.

Le Tracteur, Sanilhac

Professor and Mme. Higgins

Bouillabaise

Gaspacho

Velouté d'aubergines avec une tartine de figues et chêvre

Bar aux pommes de terre ecrassés

Un nuit chez Le Tracteur

An article in the Times of London on where chefs eat on holiday mentions that Anthony Demetre of Artabus frequents Le Tracteur and is friends with Numa.

You can find out more about by checking out Le Tracteur’s Facebook page. For tractor-spotters, there is an old Massey Ferguson parked out front. Whatever…

Le Tracteur

Here is my favorite song from The Tractors album Farmers in a Changing World — Shortening Bread.

Posted in France, Restaurants, Sustenance | 1 Comment