Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Market Day in the South of France

Our local town is not the prettiest town in the south of France. It's far from ugly - it's a small town in the south of France - but it's not picture postcard beautiful either. I don't believe that tourism is particularly high on it's agenda. It is a working town, bustling with local activity, its narrow streets lined with small shops catering to the needs of people who live and work here; oil cloths, chainsaws, candles shaped like cauliflowers. I find them all terrifying to be honest. They are so small, and quiet and piled high with things. The thought of performing my speciality manoeuvre here -  admire something on a high shelf reach for it, turn to show Nye and knock everything from waist to shoulder height to the ground with my backpack - horrifies me. It also horrifies my husband, which is why he mostly refuses to enter shops with me, in any country. 

The market is less scary. At the market I can disappear into a crowd of people, all busy and pushing and shoving to get to the best tomatoes. At the market I can pretend not to hear people ask me questions I don't understand over the din of everyone else in the town talking and laughing and shopping. At the market everything is at table height, so I would have to try really hard to knock anything over. Except for the teetering vats of paella and fritters and grilled chicken; they are at chest height. Which I suppose is sensible in terms of keeping them away from children's fingers, but that the stuff in my danger zone is sizzling hot is a danger that I could do without. 

We haven't been to the market a lot. To be honest I find it completely overwhelming, like a kid at Disney Land; it's fun and it's exciting and there are so many shiny things to look at! but afterwards I feel like something in my brain has short circuited. There is so much choice, so many things I want to eat but don't know how to ask for, so much to try and carry in two hands and one backpack, so many smells and noises and tastes and sights and people and OHMYGOD I need to sit in an empty room for three hours afterwards, at the very least.

The last time we went to the market the asparagus was in full season and apricots cost €5.90 a kilo, which means it was likely about five weeks ago. I think we will go tomorrow, five weeks is far too long. The asparagus will be gone but the sardines and the tomatoes and the rabbit brains in tiny plastic tubs will be ripe for the taking and apricots cost a third of what they did. It's a beautiful time of the year.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

France in May.

There aren't words for how beautiful it is here, for the colours that glow in the early summer light, for the shadows that dance under the towering plane trees, for the hundred shades of green on the vista over the hills and valley. It is, quite simply, ridiculous and we are, quite simply, incredibly lucky. 

These photos were taken a few weeks ago in late May, which I think is maybe the most beautiful time in the south of France, possibly anywhere. The roses are gone now and the greens started fading to yellow last week, in the scorching and unseasonable early June heatwave. Perhaps the swollen thunderclouds that have rumbled over the valley for the last week will break and drench the parched earth with the rain it needs to revive everything that is fading, including me.  

The land here is strange. It is mostly rock, in places acres and acres of vines grow from what stops just short of being slate roof tiles, it's called Schist and it produces wine that tastes better than it sounds. It's a mystery to me how the land produces anything, let alone anything as succulent as grapes, but it does and we're grateful. 

I could photograph this village every day of the week in every season and never get bored. It's a restored factory village that was built in the 17th century to produce cloth for the King, now it's houses and an art gallery and a record shop and a cafe with 17 flavours of ice cream. When it was built the words 'Manufacture Royale' were engraved over the gate but during the revolution they rubbed it out and replaced it with 'Honneur au Travail'. Wikipedia says this was crude but I like it, down with the monarchy, up with travailing. 

Note to self though: pee before you leave the house. Never has a toilet been situated so beautifully (see above left photo) only to provide such a horrifying experience on closing the door. There is no light, there is no flush, there is no paper, there is no toilet... There is a hole in the ground and well I won't go on. France is good at many things but lavatories are not one of them. 

When I was talking to a friend about moving to France vs moving to the Western Isles she told me she thought that the Western Isles would, from a photography perspective, suit my aesthetic more. She suggested that the tones and colours and atmosphere were more aligned with my style, that I find more inspiration there. She suggested, gently, that France was maybe a tad... familiar, visually. I think of her as I stand photographing roses against sandstone walls, as a pastel-toned vintage Citroen jumps out at me from in front of a wall of wisteria, as I compose images of piles of apricots under striped market awnings and wonder if it is possible for me to find pictures here that haven't been in a thousand holiday brochures, a thousand lifestyle blogs, a thousand magazine articles about the south of France. The jury is out. 

ps. The clouds broke as I was writing and the rain came. I have never heard thunder claps so loud and so long, it smells like heaven. 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Asperge, maquereau.

'What is your bestest food ever?' people like to ask (mostly 4 year olds, but occasionally someone else with a curious mind too.) I spent some time thinking about this a few years back and came quite easily to the answer; fresh mackerel, preferably from the waters off the Western Isles and preferably barbecued, but that's being fussy, I'll take it almost from anywhere and any way.

It is the most glorious fish and for a long time I could chow down on it happy in the knowledge that a) hardly anyone else likes it (I don't know why that is important, but it is) b) it's incredibly good for you and c) it was on the Marine Conservation Society's list of 'fish to eat' (an actual thing) which is not the longest list these days. And then, woe and despair, all of a sudden it was not. Suddenly mackerel was being horribly over-fished and it was on the other, longer list, along with those chip shop favourites Alfonsino and Greater Forkbeard (you haven't heard of them? Funny that.)  

The thing that really gets me about the over-fishing of mackerel is that 900,000 tonnes of it aren't being pulled from the sea because it's irresistibly delicious and surprisingly good slathered in any combination of spices you care to create. No, it's being caught to turn into pellets to feed to farmed fucking salmon. That flabby, fatty, gelatinous pink nothingness that's an insult to what fish can and should be. Lest you can't tell, I'm not a fan of farmed salmon and I'm pretty pissed off about the whole mackerel situation. 

I still eat it occasionally and I try not to feel too guilty about it. Caught locally and without trawling it registers at 2 on the sustainability scale, which isn't too terrible as fish goes these days. (Personally I think it's more important to boycott the bloody salmon, but I have little to no science to back up my theory.)

Anyway, this was supposed to be about food and eating and food photography which is something that I had hoped to practice while I was in France where the food is so good but is actually something that I've done... once. I enjoyed it though and it's part of my portfolio that I want to expand (oh hi, yeah, I have a personal portfolio). Making time to cook slowly and creatively when for so long cooking has been something to do in a bit of a panic at the end of the day to make sure that everyone is fed and no one loses their shit because a) they're hangry or b) they don't LIKE cooked n'onions. We're sadly still in a bit of a tomato sauce and pasta rut and I need to start putting together (curating? lolz) a list of things I've been wanting to cook but haven't had the time or the access to good and affordable fresh ingredients thus far. 

I've been looking at Deliciously Ella on the recommendation of a friend, at Laura's exquisite pinterest boards and sometimes at Mimi Thorrison's blog Manger, which is endlessly inspiring when it comes to French life and makes me feel like I aught to try some of her recipes but actually I'm not that sure that I really like French cuisine. Don't tell the French. It's just all, so, much. So much cream and milk and cheese and wine and my god, I'm bloated just reading the recipes. 

 Aside from the fact that dairy bloats me like a balloon, it's been absent from our cooking for a while now. About 18 months ago we realised that Ammie has a dairy intolerance, that cows milk was the worst trigger for the really awful eczema on her face and limbs. Figuring this out came a few months after I had realised that the reason food in restaurants tastes so good is because they put butter in everything. And so I started putting butter in everything. We were getting through a lot of the golden stuff by the time we had to quit it cold turkey. Letting it go wasn't fun, everything tasted rubbish for a really long time and I was grumpy about every curry, every risotto, every vegetable that I just knew would taste better with a great knob of butter on top. How hard I found it was probably as much of a sign as anything that I had taken butter too far. 

* Oh! And you all were right, asparagus needs to be roasted. I don't know why no one ever mentioned this to me before. Boiled = yuck (unless there's copious butter involved), roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper = delicious. 

If you have any other recommendations for sources of inspiration for colourful, healthy, dairy-free, mostly vegetarian but occasionally not cooking I would love to hear about them in the comments.