In this blogposting…
* The Afghan Footballer
* La vie en France / Life in France
He who dares…
THE AFGHAN FOOTBALLER
I’ve received this charming and heart-warming story from Eric and Jean. Sometimes, great and incontrovertible truths are embedded in stories such as this one.
The Liverpool manager flew to Kabul to watch a young Afghani play football. He was suitably impressed and arranged for the player to come over.
Two weeks later Liverpool were 2 - 0 down to Chelsea with only 20 minutes left. The manager gave the young Afghani striker the nod, and on he went.
The lad was a sensation. He scored 3 goals in 20 minutes and won the game for
Liverpool. The fans were delighted, the players and the coach were delighted and the media loved the new star.
When the player came off the pitch he phoned his mum to tell her about his first day in English football.
'Hello mum, guess what?' he said, 'I played for 20 minutes today, we were 2 - 0 down but I scored 3! They call it a hat-trick, and we won!
Everybody loves me, the fans, the press, they all love me!’
'Just wonderful,' says his mum, 'Let me tell you about my day …
Your father got shot in the street, your sister and I were ambushed and assaulted, she would have been raped but for a passing police vehicle. Your brother has joined a local gang of looters and set fire to some buildings and all the while you tell me that you were having a great time!!'
The young lad was very upset.
'What can I say mum, but I'm really sorry.'
'Sorry?!!! Sorry?!!!' says his mum, 'It's your bloody fault we came to Liverpool in the first place!'
LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE
One of the things I most look forward to when I visit Beaujolais - something I love doing as often as I can when I’m there - is to visit the Saturday morning market at Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne.
Traditional town and village markets are still very common in France, which goes some way to explain why the rural economy there is so lively and buoyant. The large supermarkets do not control agriculture to nearly the same extent as they do here; small farmers are much more likely to form co-operatives and sell their produce at local markets - which can be very local indeed.
This means that the best local produce often never leaves the area of origin and people flock from miles around to obtain it. This is especially true of Chatillon, which lies at the centre of a large area of rich and fertile farmland - and not far from Bresse, which produces the best chickens in all of France.
To give you a flavour of this wonderful market, let me take you on a tour….
You can see the ancient market hall behind me. The stallholders at the entrance are selling ‘livestock’, mostly pets. There are rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rats and mice. There are pigeons, doves, ducks and geese.
Unfortunately, it is not yet unfashionable in France to keep birds in cages so there are also budgerigars, canaries, parrots and exotic finches. I try to ignore them while I stroke the rabbits.
There are also hens for sale. Last year, we bought three hens here - Julia, Jean and Hildie - and two weeks ago, we bought a fourth - Carla Bruni. In this video, she’s the brown one with the lighter-coloured tail feathers, more or less in the thick of it.
(When we got her home, Julia, Jean and Hildie gave her a very hard time indeed, plucking at her feathers and chasing her round the compound. It was the first time I’d ever seen a demonstration of what ‘establishing a pecking order‘ means.)
Next comes the flower seller. From hot-houses all over France come blooms of all kinds, as well as cacti and bonsai.
Over the aisle from him is the first of the market’s many producers and sellers of honey. The French take honey very seriously and most local producers like this will offer three or four types - forest, flower, field and hedgerow - in very big jars. They usually have honey-related goodies too - honey-cakes, beeswax polish and candles…
Next is the first of many sausage-sellers. French saucissons are solid, weighty affairs that can attain huge, un-sausage-like proportions and are almost always flavoured with un-sausage-like ingredients, like walnuts, apples and even bilberries.
(I’m ashamed to admit that this French affection for the native European bilberry is one of the things that draws me back there again and again. Yes - the humble bilberry! In England, it’s been replaced in the shops by the American blueberry - big and fat and strongly flavoured. Each time I visit France, I thank the Fates that the French still vastly prefer the more delicate, gentler, subtler and aromatic bilberry, which they call myrtille sauvage.
Interestingly, this translates into English as ‘wild blueberry’. So if you see some jam labelled thus, it’s made of bilberries, not blueberries. These things are important to maniacs like me.)
Next is our favourite stall; the farm co-operative that cooks and sells Bressane chicken - and lots more besides. There are hot ham hocks, gammon joints, sausages, offal, mountains of sauerkraut (which is enormously popular in France: they call it choucroute). Here also are potatoes in many forms - lightly boiled in their skins with parsley and butter, or (my absolute favourite) pommes dauphinoise with the creamiest, tastiest sauce imaginable.
We always spend far too much money at this stall.
Across the way, after the seller of sweets, bon-bons and chocolate, come purveyors of cheese. Firstly, there are medium-sized rounds of popular local tommes - mild, soft cheeses. There are cows’ milk cheeses from the high Alps; large rounds a foot in diameter and covered in a very thick, dark brown rind.
There are cheeses from elsewhere in France, too, as you’d expect from a country that thinks it produces the best cheese in the entire world (but doesn’t). Raclette, Camembert, Roquefort and dozens of others.
Goats’ cheese is enormously popular (a fact of which I whole-heartedly approve) and is piled high here, too. Small rounds of stronger, more intensely bittersweet cheese, often flavoured with nuts, seeds, herbs or fruits and almost always produced in the very fields and farms we drove past to get here.
My favourite of all though - the cheese which, all alone, almost (but not quite) justifies French cheese snobbery, is vacherin. It’s a speciality cows’ milk cheese produced only on the slopes of the Jura mountains, especially Mont D’Or, only in fairly large rounds encased in balsawood and only available between September and May.
It’s sensational - and very expensive. Soft, gooey and very strong; the best vacherin blows the enamel off your teeth and leaves it on the roof of your mouth. You know when you’ve had a mouthful of vacherin.
Normally, I’m not a fan of strong cheese but I would walk, crawl, limp or (given half a chance) hitch-hike for several days to lay my hands on a round of vacherin.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. It’s often available in Waitrose!
It’s only a shame that the French don’t return the compliment. English cheese is unobtainable in France. I know - I’ve tried to find some. To the French, there’s no such thing as English cheese.
In the corner of the hall are the fruit and vegetable sellers. Here, you’ll find locally-grown salad leaves of every conceivable shape and colour. Swedes, carrots, onions, radishes, potatoes, chard, onions, spinach, onions, parsnips (occasionally; the French aren’t sure what to do with parsnips), peas, onions, beans, tomatoes (especially big, indented beef tomatoes), onions, artichokes, fennel...
There are mountains of strawberries and oranges, lemons and plums, cherries and raspberries, bananas and limes, pears, peaches and nectarines - although I’m disappointed to report that the range and quality of dessert apples in France is uniformly awful. Remember that this is the country that gave the world the truly disgusting Granny Smith; tasteless, ubiquitous and unrewarding - the apple equivalent of Simon Cowell or Dale Winton.
Take a deep breath...
Next, there’s the oyster-man in the archway leading out into Church Square....
Apart from garlic and chillis, spices are less common in France than they are here. Indian and Asian food is still fairly exotic there, though you'll see mountains of the flavourings used in North African food - France's ex-empire.
Outside on the street is the garlic vendor. This being rural France, I’ve seen six or seven different varieties of garlic on sale here, as well as curious small elongated onions which, I have since discovered, are known as ‘banana shallots’ in England.
Across the cobbles is the mobile creperie (3 euros apiece) and the waffle-makers caravan.
It was whilst buying a honey-drenched waffle there last week that I overheard the only argument I am ever likely to hear about French grammatical gender. The waffle-maker offered us un waffle - masculine. An eavesdropping passer-by insisted - rather too vehemently, I thought - that waffles were feminine and that we should have been offered une waffle, instead.
To English ears, it’s all so much dingo’s kidneys. How lucky we are, I thought, as the protagonists fulminated and shrugged their self-righteous shoulders, that we speak a language that abandoned grammatical gender centuries ago (only to replace it with impenetrable spelling.)
Remember that this is only the provender market. The stalls selling household goods and clothers aet themselves up on the nearby Town Square and do a roaring trade. One of the biggest stalls is run by Olivier and Karen, who proudly display a range of over 400 kitchen-gadgets; this is France, after all.
The range is staggering. There are snail-eating kits, champagne-cork grips, tomato-peel zesters and vegetable de-stuffers ( - don't ask)....
Chatillon market is a big, bustling, brash affair. It bristles with life; it has colour, variety and a tremendous atmosphere - all in a town not much bigger than, say, Barnard Castle. I've become hopelessly addicted to it.
And sometimes, I think how unsurprised I would be to discover that there’s a stall there selling dingo’s kidneys….
THE WORLD - A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
Don’t forget that our next port-of-call is Argentina. If you have some unlikely but true lowdown on that troublesome nation - the sort of information we could blackmail it with - send it to me in the usual way.
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