The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, May 31, 2009

That's Not Where I'd Leave My Gold

If that pot o' gold really is in Vaulx-en-Velin, it's already been stolen, graffiti-tagged, or pissed on, or some combination of the three.

Taken from the esplanade here at Le Clos Vendome, with Eglise St-Georges and Saone river in foreground.

Heaven and Hell, updated

Well, it turned out all right. Although of course the battle of the fanfares was somewhat annoying, and restricted conversation somewhat, there was plenty of good beer on offer (and absolutely free for the tasting, which didn't prevent me from buying a lot of beer to take home), and the brewers were genuinely pleased to chat with me about their product, perhaps being unused to customers who actually knew something about brewing and actually liked flavorful, innovative brews.

Although craft brewing in France is still in its adolescence, and not really on par with the explosion in interesting beers in the US nowadays, there was still plenty of innovation on show. France's brewers are not as bound by tradition as in England or Germany--of course, if you're doing something right, why change it? Among some of the more unusual varieties, I tried a nougat beer (tasty but you wouldn't want more than one), a genepi beer (genepi is one of those Alpine specialties, like Chartreuse, that is made from medicinal herbs and tastes like Scope. Interesting but not for me), and a thyme beer (would be great with food in well-chosen situations). If I had one, my best-in-show vote would go to Alphand's Biere de Noel, with honorable mention to La Dauphine Ambree and Brasserie de la Loire's Guele Noire ("Black Mouth" brown ale).

Of course I spent most of my time talking to a Canadian who runs a brewpub in Chamonix, mostly about the Stanley Cup playoffs and whether Cam Ward or Marc-Andre Fleury should start at goalie for the Canadian Olympic team. If you're ever in Chamonix, which you should be, make sure to stop in and have a beer, eh?

As for the battle of the fanfares: The two competing bands would set up on opposite sides of a volleyball net, and take turns with their best tunes [photo]. The victors were chosen by applause meter, but with everyone drinking free, high alcohol-by-volume beer, I don't think anyone cared who won.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Heaven and Hell

Beer Festival!
Fifty brewers!
A beer-and-cheese market! (Well, it is France.)
Right on the Metro line so I don't have to worry about getting home afterward!

The Beer Festival features a battle of the fanfare bands!
Fanfares are what French high-school band geeks do on weekends: picture a small-scale high-school marching band --minus the marching-- playing at local fairs, markets, or just on the street. Wearing funny hats, usually, covering Crazy Train or Toxic, and generally being just wacky in the manner of band geeks worldwide.

Here's a YouTube clip of a fanfare doing a barely-recognizable version of Daft Punk's Around the World (or is it a medley with Harder Better Faster Stronger? I can't tell and don't want to pay enough attention to find out*) on the passarelle over the Saone between the marche and Vieux-Lyon.

While fanfares are mildly amusing in small doses --very small, like nano-, pico-doses-- when one sets up shop in front of your apartment building on a Saturday afternoon, as often happened at our old apartment on Rue de la Republique, you begin to realize how quickly your mood can go from "mildly amused" to "murderous".

If you happen to read a news item this weekend about an American being deported from France after drunkenly bludgeoning a trombonist with his own horn at a beer festival after an ill-advised cover of The Skatalites' Phoenix City, then claiming diplomatic immunity... well, you'll know what happened.

[*And really, if you're going to repurpose turn-of-the-millennium French disco, this is how you do it. Stick with it, it picks up at about 1:40. Sublimely pointless.]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ta Bagnole, Il A Un Hemi?

Oui, monsieur, in fact it does.

Behold the Facel Vega HK500, an honest-to-Dieu French muscle car with a 392 Hemi, and during the brief time of its production, the world's fastest production car.

Want Gallic je-ne-sais-quoi with your stump-ripping American iron? How about this: Pablo Picasso had one, and as we all know, he was never called an asshole. Albert Camus was killed in one, and his unfinished manuscript for Le Premier Homme found in the floorboard.

Bidding starts at a mere one hundred thousand euros, at the Bonham's Grandes Marques a Monaco auction. I highly recommend picking one up if you have the means.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Drunkblogging: Biere Picon

I've gone on at some length about the importance of the apero, that late afternoon/early evening drink that is so important in the French psyche. It signals the end of the day's labors, whether during the working week or on the weekend, and begins the preparations for the upcoming dinner meal-- the most important 2-4 hours in a Frenchman's day.

Now, if you'll indulge me a moment, a few words in praise of the cafe, where a great many of these aperos are taken: This is something America is sadly lacking in. We've got bars, sure. But get a load of the sad bastards in your typical American bar on a Tuesday at 6PM: pathetic drunks, mostly; sometimes office workers from Accounts Receivable across the street, in for their weekly pitcher of Bud Lite before going home to a Totino's pizza and CSI: Indianapolis.

Every town in France has at least one cafe, and no matter where you are, it's easy just to plop into a chair at a sidewalk table (note for cheapskates: bar prices in France are according to where you sit--highest prices at the sidewalk tables, less inside, cheapest sitting at the bar) and wait for the waiter to come take your order.

A lot of Americans think French waiters are rude. This is a common misconception. French waiters are professionals. In the US, waiting tables is something done by out-of-work actors or college students to pick up a few extra bucks; in France to be a waiter is a metier, a calling. A single French waiter will cover 30 tables, where his American counterpart will cover eight. As a result, he is very rushed. He does not have time to nurse you through deciding what you want to order (though if he gives you advice, take it, always), and if he does not stop to chat, to ask you how you are finding Petitmerde-sur-Nowhere, you should not feel insulted. If you snap your fingers at him, or, Lord help you, call him "garcon" ("boy"), then yes, your food will get spit in. Better to accept that your waiter is a busy professional and would appreciate your help in accomplishing his duties as efficiently as possible.

Probably so he can go have a smoke. But anyway.

Perhaps you have decided that this evening you would like a Biere Picon. This is a glass of beer with a shot of orange-flavored liqueur mixed in; fruity and ideal for a spring or summer apero. Not too heavy, not too strong.

You'll need a bottle of Amer Picon, of course. According to the label, M. Picon invented this liqueur as Amer Africain in Algeria in 1837 and began distributing it under his own name on his return to France (Amer = "Bitter"). Since one only uses a single shot at a time, the one-liter bottle I picked up at Monoprix for EUR10 probably represents a lifetime supply.

Pour roughly one shot of Picon into the bottom of your glass. (Yes, I know my trappist beer glass is totally wrong for this, but almost all my barware is in North Carolina. Use a pilsner glass if you have one.) Then add cold beer on top of that. The idea is that you use a beer that is light-bodied and not strongly flavored. I'm using Stella here because it's my everyday fridge beer, but you could just as well use Kronenbourg (the Budweiser of France), Heineken (the Budweiser of Europe), Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolling Rock, etc. If you were to actually add Picon to a Westmalle Trappist, an elite team of Belgian monks would be helicoptered in from Brussels to combat-drop to your table and take turns beating you about the face and head.

Notice how it turns your pale-gold lager a very dark color. [Photo: Note also Converse One-Stars, $20 at the Durham SuperTarget, unobtainable and much-envied in France] The flavor is bitter, herbal, aromatic, and complex, with orange peel being the dominant overtone. It seems to somehow neutralize the hop flavor of the beer, reducing the beer to the role of substrate or carrier. It's quite drinkable, yes. Do I like it? Well, it's not bad, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to order it. You might like it, though. Tell you what, next time you're at my house, ask me for one... I'm sure to have most of a bottle sitting around.