Trombes d’eau

Torrential downpours

I should have known better. It was risky of me to turn off the heat. Positively foolhardy to pack away all my sweaters. I further stacked the deck by going away on a tropical vacation, assuming that when I came back it would be full-on summer. In my defence, last year at this time we were already sweltering in the endless summer that began in May.

The kiss of death this year: I had air conditioning installed.

You know where I’m going here: the rotten weather. We had three days of solid rain on our return from Mauritius. Not just rain but torrential downpours. ‘Trombes d’eau’ as we say in French, referring to the trumpets of water that are released in such a cloudburst.

And it was cold. Freezing in fact. So I turned the heat back on. The solar panels stopped working so I put the water heater back on too. Even broke out a few winter woollies.

Lo and behold, the sun has come out. You can thank me in the comments.

As for ‘les trombes d’eau’, I can thank the rain for inspiring me to post about this expression and finally learning how to spell it. For years, hearing it spoken, I had confused it in mind with ‘trompes’ — elephant trunks.

Easy enough, right? They both spray large quantities of water at you. Ironically, I was further confused by the verb, ‘tromper’ meaning to deceive or fool, so similar to ‘tremper’ which means to soak.

The great thing about word play in a second language is that it keeps you endlessly amused while your mistakes provide entertainment for others.

In actual fact, I learned that ‘trombe’ refers to a sort of whirlwind effect when siphons of rain fall at sea. ‘Trombes d’eau’ is when the skies open up and release a sudden downpour.

But all of that is water under the bridge, as it were. We have had plenty of rain. Now it is time for the sun to shine in all its glory.

Fair warning, however: next week I will turn on the A/C.

Expect snow.

Ile Maurice

The sun was coming up as we touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport in Mahébourg, on the south side of Ile Maurice. After a twelve-hour flight from Zurich, I was happy to see that we were going to get what we came for.

It is winter in Mauritius, which means slightly cooler weather. We mostly had temps around 25 Celsius, a few clouds along with the odd raindrop. Perfect for me as while I love spending time on the beach I am not a huge fan of the heat.

Our destination was Trou aux Biches, a beautiful lagoon on the opposite end of the island. Our driver gave us a guided tour through the mountainous interior during the one-hour ride.

I was surprised to see that English rules of the road apply, with driving on the left side. All of the road signs are in English, but the place names are French. This is due to the island’s colonial past, which switched over several times from Dutch to French to British before becoming independent in 1968.

Most people speak French as well as English, along with Créole and Hindi. The island’s location in the Indian ocean, although it is considered part of the African continent, and its geographic proximity to Asia, make it a popular destination for international tourists.

Fields of ‘canne à sucre’ or sugar cane

‘Canne à sucre’ or sugar cane is traditionally the main industry on the island, and there are fields as far as the eye can see. It seems the crop has suffered of late from competition from the sugar beet, along with the world’s increasing aversion to sugar. Oddly, our driver told us there are also a great many call centers now in Mauritius, taking advantage of the multilingual workforce.

Our resort was a bit of a splurge, with infinity pools and waterfalls, gorgeous landscaping, a semi-private beach (there were still hawkers regularly flogging their wares) and as a bonus, bar service!

This was less of an adventure and more of a beach vacation. All I need is a shady lounger and a stack of books to be happy. It was heaven!

Ile Maurice is two hours ahead of France time-wise, so we woke a bit later than usual. Each day started with bright sunshine and the screeching of birds. Being in the southern hemisphere and the shortest days of the year also meant that the sun set rather early, around 5:30 pm. 

The only inconvenience was mosquitos, which came out in force after dark. We tried to cover up and use deet (yuck) as there have been warnings about the risk of dengue fever. But we sat outside — hey, tropical vacation — and naturally still got bitten. They are tiny little buggers and I neither saw nor felt the bites until they started to itch the next day.

One of the things we enjoyed most on Mauritius was the variety of food. The Indian influence means a lot of spicier options, curries and such, which we both love. Plus the classic French cuisine, along with Italian.

The hotel bar had some fabulous cocktails. My favourite had ginger, brandy and rum. Not too sweet but with a nice kick!

The local beer is also excellent. That’s a Phoenix for me, and Monsieur will have his usual non-alcoholic option.

We left the hotel compound for dinner several times. Aside from the breakfast buffet, which was utterly decadent, the hotel restaurants were overpriced and the food only passable. Also, given the British influence, there was dress code for dinner which meant husband had to wear long pants and shirt with collar – not a win for Monsieur! Fortunately the hotel staff were happy to accommodate by driving us across the resort by golf cart to walking distance from the nearby restaurants. It was a fun ride: those electric ‘voiturettes’ as they call them can really go!

We went back to one place, Le Pescatore, twice. This beet sorbet amuse-bouche was amazing.

The fish was in a light coconut curry sauce. The desserts were to die for!

We took a day trip to visit some sights in the north part of the island. Port Louis, the capital city, served up a mix of old and new.

There was a wonderful market hall with all kinds of fresh produce and goods. As everywhere, the signs are in English.

We are terrible at negotiating so ended up paying way too much for some spices. Ah well, it was fun and at least we supported the local economy!

The surrounding beaches in the north end from Mont Choisy to Grand Baie offered beautiful expanses of white sand flanked by pine forest.

We stopped to see a fishing village called Cap Malheureux (Cape Misfortune) with a history of ships foundering on the rocks and lovely views out to the nearby mountainous islands.

One place on our route was called ‘Balaclava’ and husband asked the driver why. The guide seemed baffled and had no idea what the word actually meant. Turns out that the French had renamed certain places that had been historically dubbed with English names. Thus ‘black lava’ became ‘balaclava’. Nothing to do with the head gear!

Other than that, we did very little. Was it because we had only a week with a long flight on either end? I’m not sure but for some reason, for once I was happy to just kick back and relax. The explorations of the mountains and remote islands will have to wait for a return visit.

On our flight out, despite the clouds playing peek-a-boo, you could see the coral reef that surrounds Mauritius, making it a safe haven for shark-free swimming and snorkeling.­­­­

Au revoir, Ile Maurice! Hope to visit your beautiful shores again one day.

Il faut partir…

One of the maxims of French life is that, from time to time, one must get up and go. “Il faut partir,” near or far, but get away from the day-to-day grind and see other sights in order to return refreshed and reinvigorated.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of places to do this in France, or even within the bounds of our European borders. But this year we decided to go a bit further afield. Can you guess where?

Hints: It is in the Indian ocean yet part of the African continent. French is spoken but it is not part of France. We’ll be bringing plenty of mosquito repellent. The flight takes about 12 hours.

I’ll leave you to mull it over while I go offline. All shall be revealed in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, wish me bon voyage!

Le monde est stone

Starmania cast and producers, 1988

Here’s this week’s song for a Saturday — voici ma chanson pour ce samedi.

If there is a song that defines my early days in France, it is this one. Stunning, heartbreakingly beautiful, yet somehow beyond my grasp.

“Why do they sing about the world being ‘stone’,” I asked my husband.

“Because it was the 70’s, everyone was high.”

“So why don’t they say ‘stoned’?”

“We don’t pronounce the ‘d’ in French.”

Hmm. This confuses me. Perhaps he is right but the lyrics mostly talk about the world being a cold, hard place, of being alone and looking for the light. Perhaps it is this very duality that makes the lyrics so enchanting.

This song was one of the biggest hits of the French rock opera, Starmania. We saw the French production in Paris, in 1988, with the second cast featuring a young Maurane, featured on this blog last week. Written by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon, the musical went on to be adapted in English as ‘Tycoon’, with the lyrics of the English song, ‘The world is stone’ by Tim Rice, immortalized by Cyndi Lauper.

I am torn – which version of this song do I like best? Both are incredibly moving. The beauty of Fabienne Thibeault’s voice in the French version, the energy and originality of Cyndi Lauper’s version. I read that Michel Berger, who wrote the music, not only approved of Lauper’s version but even preferred it.

You decide.

J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir
Stone
Le monde est stone
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de la nuit
J’sais pas si c’est la Terre
Qui tourne à l’envers
Ou bien si c’est moi
Qui m’fait du cinéma
Qui m’fait mon cinéma
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de ma nuit
Stone
Le monde est stone
J’ai plus envie d’me battre
J’ai plus envie d’courir
Comme tous ces automates
Qui bâtissent des empires
Que le vent peut détruire
Comme des châteaux de cartes
Stone
Le monde est stone
Laissez moi me débattre
Venez pas m’secourir
Venez plutôt m’abattre
Pour m’empêcher d’souffrir
J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir

Stone, the world is stone
It’s no trick of the light, it’s hard on the soul
Stone, the world is stone, cold to the touch
And hard on the soul in the gray of the streets
In the neon unknown, I look for a sign
That I’m not on my own, that I’m not here alone
As the still of the night and the choke of the air
And the winners’ delight and the losers’ despair
Closes in left and right, I would love not to care
Stone, the world is stone from a faraway look
Without stars in my eyes through the halls of the rich
And the flats of the poor wherever I go
There’s no warmth anymore
There’s no love anymore
So I turn on my heels, I’m declining the fall
I’ve had all I can take with my back to the wall
Tell the world I’m not in, I’m not taking the call
Stone, the world is stone but I saw it once
With the stars in my eyes when each color rang out
In a thunderous chrome, it’s no trick of the light
I can’t find my way home in a world of stone

Which one do you prefer?

France’s best baguettes

Baguettes at “Le Capitole” bakery in Nice, France, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The baguette is the most popular loaf of French bread. There are 32,000 bakers and cake-makers (boulangers-pâtissiers) in France. Like so many things that the French take seriously, the profession is regulated. What this means is that you can’t make it up. Cela ne s’invente pas. There are rules and regulations around the fabrication of the humble baguette de pain and a professional association that sets the standards and governs the making and baking of our daily bread.

Every year, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française holds a contest to crown the baker who makes the best ‘baguette de tradition’. Now, the traditional French stick is not to be confused with its lesser cousin, ‘la baguette industrielle’. The industrial or ordinary type of baguette can be found in every French supermarket or ‘point chaud’ and while some centimes cheaper is far inferior in terms of quality.

Traditional baguette is made by an artisan baker at a relatively small scale and according to a strict set of rules. The flour must be of a specific type (55), with nothing added other than yeast and salt, then kneaded for a minimal amount of time, weighed, divided and allowed to rise. It is then shaped by hand into the iconic long ‘baguette’ shape before being baked in an oven with a stone floor.

The criteria for the ‘best’ baguette are the following (20 points for each):

  • Aspect – the look or appearance of the loaf
  • Croûte (couleur/croustillant) – the colour and crustiness of the crust
  • Arôme – its flavour or taste
  • Mie (couleur / alvéolage) – the colour and cellular structure of the white, doughy part of the bread (which must not be overly dense)
  • Mâche – its chewiness or mouth feel
The word ‘alvéole’ comes from the cells of a bee-hive but its holes should be irregular.

The best baguette is somewhat irregular looking, with a nicely browned, crusty exterior and a soft, airy interior. It has a bit of character in terms of taste but is essentially a perfect backdrop for other flavours: cheese, sauces, pâtés…

This year’s top prizes at the national level were handed out in Paris on May 15th. The three top bakers are in Franche-Comté, Brittany and Ardèche: https://www.boulangerie.org/blog/concours-national-de-la-meilleure-baguette-de-tradition-francaise-les-resultats-2/

In April, the winners of the 25th annual competition in Paris were announced. The baguettes of this year’s winning baker, Fabrice Leroy, can be found at the Leroy-Monti bakery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement and also grace the president’s table at the Elysée Palace (if you are lucky enough to be invited). https://www.sortiraparis.com/news/in-paris/articles/190183-paris-best-baguette-winner-is-leroy-monti-bakery-in-the-12th-arrondissement/lang/en

How do you like your bread? Dense and doughy or light and fluffy?