Saturday, December 24, 2011

Crime and Justice in Provence

Well, it's everywhere. Crime, I mean.(You didn't think my rose-coloured glasses were that heavily tinted, did you?)Every time I open the local paper or turn on the news there's another armed robbery reported or another shooting in Marseille. Yesterday a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Marseille outside an apartment block, La Castellane. The sapeurs-pompiers (fire brigade/paramedics) arrived promptly but couldn't save the boy from the seven rounds fired into his body from a kalashnikov rifle.

Marseille's long had a reputation for violent crime and the latest version of urban warfare in France's second city combines cocaine dealing with kalashnikovs.

A few weeks ago another youngster, Ali Attia, was shot dead in his cousin's restaurant in a café in Saint-Antoine, a quartier in the north of Marseille. His killer strolled in with a kalashnikov and shot him as he sat at the dinner table.

These tit-for-tat killings are referred to in the Provençal press as a war of the clans - gangs and families vying to control cocaine supply in Marseille. But there are also casual killings when young men loaded up with cocaine take offence at a passing glance from another kid in the quartier. Guns are used as casually as fists once were. The ex-wife of a friend of mine was shot in the head some time ago as she walked down a road in Marseille in daylight. Obviously not knowing what had hit her, she was rushed to hospital and luckily survived. What had hit her was of course a stray bullet from a gun being used by a local guy to settle some imbecilic score - drug payment or other.

Since la crise started to bite in Provence as elsewhere in Europe, there seems to have been exponential growth in the business of armed robbery too. In and around Avignon for example, a series of recent armed robberies have targetted businesses like McDonalds and Quick (a drive-through takeaway). Supermarkets like Intermarché have been frequently hit too. The police in Avignon caught six teenage boys within minutes of the Quick robbery. Turning up to the scene of the crime with admirable rapidity, the unit made a tour of the vicinty and found six armed lads in a car counting cash.... Back to crime school, boys - you haven't learnt the basics.

Another criminal gang that needs to go back to crime school tried to blow up a bank in Gardanne in the Bouches-du-Rhone this week. They used explosive to blast the safe that feeds the cash distributer. But they didn't use enough and the safe stayed intact. They did however blow out the windows of an elderly resident's house. And they also apparently managed to get themselves filmed by the CCTV camera, also unaffected by the blast.

Crime isn't always violent, of course. Marseille has just seen the trial of a counterfeiter money-maker, Michel Vialle, who bagged himself a profit of around 150,000 by stealing the special paper used to make money, then forging a bunch of euros and Algerian dinar. (Actually the paper theft was violent. A vehicle carrying the paper was blasted open to carry out the theft.) Vialle - nicknamed le canard - the Duck - I have no idea why - told the police he was pretty astonished at the success of his forged euros. He hadn't expected them to be accepted all over the place, but they were. He was caught after a bloke saw him burning a few counterfeit bills, outside, and later handed burnt fragments to the police. The police went to the site and found a toothpick Vialle had discarded by the notes. It had his DNA on it. It must be the first time in history, surely, that a counterfeiter has been trapped by a toothpick.

Last week I went to see the French film Les Lyonnais, starring the increasingly watchable Gérard Lanvin. Directed by Olivier Marchal, it's a hard-hitting film about gypsy crime families in the 50s and ensuing decades. Based on the real history of Edmond Vidal, nicknamed Momon, it shows the excessive violence of that milieu and that era. It borrows a bit too much use of imagery and episodes from The Godfather, but nevertheless it's a very good film.

Provence also has a very large community of gitanes, officially recast as gens de voyage these days. I don't give two hoots for the politically correct terminology - one of my neighbours out here in the forest is a gitane and the first thing she ever said to me after announcing her name was "Je suis une gitane". The gypsies of Provence hail mostly from Spain originally and still have a strong presence in the Camargue, the marshy wetlands south and west of Arles. But sites, official and otherwise, are dotted all over Provence. I have been told that the prisons here are largely controlled by the gitanes - internally, I mean. I've also been told that some years ago there was a battle in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue between local gitanes and the maghrebin community. Apparently, the gypsies took offence at something done by young maghrebin guys and turned up at their estate in the evening and started shooting out windows in the tall apartment blocks. I was told that the police were informed but declined to get involved, feeling perhaps that this was just another, if smaller, war of the clans. Maybe it's an apocryphal story. But maybe not.

What is noticeable in Provence is that very often the wheels of justice turn quickly. If a criminal is nabbed quickly, and the evidence is clear and simple, the offender can find himself in court and in jail within days. I recall a case where a young driver was stopped by police for traffic offences and swore at them. He was in court the next morning, convicted and jailed. The police respond quickly to crime - not always but often - and the courts tend to hand out punishments fairly freely for anti-social behaviour.

There's also petty crime all over the place and even that tends to be reported by people and documented by the police even if little can be done to catch offenders. My neighbour came out of his house one morning not long ago to find his car propped on a breeze block. A wheel had been stolen. A few years before, his previous car had been stolen. This is up a track outside a small village. Other neighbours have had petrol stolen out of their cars and tractors. One had a large agricultural trailer nicked. My nearest neighbour called the cops one night when burglars were breaking into her house. The intruders buzzed off. Other near neighbours had a young guy walk into their home and steal cash, a satnav thing and a digital camera. He had the nerve to return a few nights later but this time was scared off.

Last year, a disgruntled neighbour asked me if I'd seen anyone hanging around his land just before Christmas. No, I said. Why? "I came out to pick my olives" he said "and they'd all been stolen. It's completely uncivil." He's right of course. But at least the thieves didn't turn up with kalashnikovs.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cours de Cuisine at the Auberge de la Camarette, Pernes-les-Fontaines

It's nearly Christmas and in Provence that inevitably means thinking about food over the Christmas weekend. This year I was lucky enough to have a friend offer me a cookery class at the fairly sublime Auberge de la Camarette, just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines in the Vaucluse, as a Christmas present. La Camarette seems to be a bit of a secret around here - it's excellent and almost always fully booked and yet I've mentioned it to a number of people - even a couple of Provençal chefs - who don't know the place. It's set in its own large vineyard, in a former medieval silk farm, with a lovely view of Mont Ventoux - and fabulous, light, well-judged cuisine. The set menu each day uses the best local produce and wine from the vineyard is included in the 32 euro 3-course menu. No wonder the place is always booked out - it offers just about the best value in Provence.

The last time my friend and I went to cook with the talented young chef, Hugo, in May, we made stuffed quails with velouté d'asperges as an entrée. This time we made foie gras, brioches and pineapple chutney. At each stage, Hugo demonstrates what needs to be done and then helps you realise the dish. The first thing to do with the foie gras (duck, not goose, in this case) was to open the foie, trace the nerves delicately with your fingers and lift them out. Then you season the foie using black pepper, salt, a prune liqueur and cognac. (There are several different alcohols that work well depending on your taste, including muscat.)

Then we put the foie into terrines, compressed them to force air out and put them in the fridge to rest. We started on the brioches, making the pate for customers who'd dine at the Camarette during the evening. As the pate needs to rest for hours, Hugo had made our brioche pate the evening before. It was simply made with flour, yeast, water, eggs, salt and a touch of sugar. A mound of butter was then added and the mixture was left to rise. We took the dough that was already risen and rolled it on a floured surface to make round brioches which we packed in aluminium cases and put in the oven.

The fois gras was then cooked in a bain marie for around 20 minutes.

While the brioches and foie gras were cooking, Hugo made a pineapple chutney explaining the possible variations. He used fresh diced pineapple, fresh chopped ginger, raw cane sugar, wine vinegar and garlic cloves. (The garlic was left whole, just to lightly flavour the chutney, and then removed.) The result, once he had made the mixture meld and brought the flavours out, was delicious.

Now, everything stopped for a while to make a fuss of Hugo's small son who came trundling into the kitchen holding a cane far taller than he was. He announced that he wanted to see daddy and had a bit of a chat with everyone, then beetled off outside again. Hugo gave us an update on the progress of his baby daughter who is now five months old and the image of her mum.

The terrines of foie gras were now taken from the bain marie and we put weights on them to force out the melted fat. This needs to be melted on a low heat and then poured back on to the terrine to solidify. The dish can be kept for up to two weeks in a fridge but the five of us who were cooking today planned to serve it over Christmas.

The brioches came out of the oven. Hugo glazed them quickly with a little of the duck fat on a brush. He cut one brioche which we all tasted. Heaven. It was subtly flavoured and very light.

Throughout the morning, we learnt a hundred and one cooking tips as we went. Hugo is a terrific teacher as well as a terrific chef. At noon, as we worked, he served the Camarette's lovely apéro epicé - rosé or rouge as you prefer. And the kitchen, which had seen three dishes made by six people over four hours, looked as pristine as it had done at 9am.

Hugo is a very talented young chef who can teach while he cooks, help others cook all morning and then cope with a restaurant full of diners at lunchtime and in the evening. Somehow, he does it as if it's an effortless exercise!

The Camarette is rather hidden away just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines, but well worth finding. The vineyard's wine is pretty decent but the real show is the restaurant and the food. The cookery classes are really good fun and informative and make a great present for yourself or a friend, or both. Here's the website, below, if you feel like spoiling yourself while you're in the Vaucluse - at 32 euros all in for an evening meal, the value really couldn't be better. or tel.: 04 90 61 60 78.

The Camarette has rooms available too, by the way, but I don't really want to recommend them as I have a lovely apartment to rent out at my place near L'Isle-sur-Sorgue!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bonjour - is that France Telecom?

One of the periodic frustrations of living in the Provençal countryside is that phone services and electricity are prone to give up the ghost fairly frequently. Since 2004, when I began to live here full time, the phoneline has always stopped working for a day or two after heavy rain. “Won’t be able to call or email you tomorrow” I’ll tell a friend, ”there’s a lot of rain forecast.”

Often the line goes dead for no apparent reason. Once your Livebox stops showing the steady little green light and starts flashing a little red one, you know you’re in for several weeks of trouble. Since your fixe (landline phone) and internet both depend on the Livebox, you can find yourself stuck up a track in a forest without internet or telephone for weeks on end. Since I’m the only person on the planet not to use a mobile phone, bang goes my entire communication system.

In 2009 when my line stopped working, it took 6 weeks and 7 visits by 14 young France Telecom subcontractors to restore the service. They persistently turned up without ladders, so they couldn’t work on the line attached to the top of a post. Cynical I may be, but I guess that France Telecom pay these subcontractors every time they turn out to a client’s home. Therefore they have every incentive to turn up, find an excuse not to fix the line and come back a few days later. Rinse and repeat.

The last time they fixed the line, instead of connecting the cable in the air between two posts, they left it draped across hundreds of yards of my neighbour’s land, on the ground, among wild herbs, flowers and shrubs. “It’s a temporary repair” the young technician said. “So I see. D’you think the permanent repair can be made soon?” I asked. He shrugged. “Insh’allah” he replied. So, here we are in France in the 21st century and I have to rely on allah for my phone service.

Repeated pleas to a France Telecom manager to connect the cable properly had zero result. At one point, he told my neighbour that I had to make a complaint (it was my phone service) and told me that she had to make a complaint (it was her land). The fact that we’d both made the complaint, several times, achieved nothing.

Over the months, the cable moved around in shrubs swayed by the mistral. Passing wild pigs no doubt picked their way across it and the local shepherd got annoyed because he couldn’t let his sheep graze around it in case they inadvertently tugged it loose and disconnected me. I don’t suppose I’m the only customer in Provence to worry, when I spot a wild boar, that my phone line may go down or to feel guilty that the local sheep can’t graze because I need to use the internet.

Eventually the inevitable happened and the cable trailing on the ground got tugged by wind or beast and disconnected from the telephone pole. When the service went off I wondered out to inspect the cable and found the end of it lying wrapped round a small pine tree.

France Telecom promised to send a team to repair it yesterday but they didn’t turn up and reported that they couldn’t find the house. Silly, really, as they’ve visited many times. Still, they’ll be paid to try and find it again in a few days… Meanwhile, the girl at the FT depannage service told me darkly that the line has been tested and the problem is beaucoup plus compliqué than I think. Not being a telecoms engineer, I can’t really comment but it certainly looks quite simple to me. The cable is disconnected from the pole.

I have a friend who lives nearby whose service was off for nearly three months this year. It worked intermittently at first – two minutes on, five minutes off, ten minutes on, three minutes off…. Each time it came on, she’d scramble to call FT customer service to report the fault. Naturally, the reply each time was that the line seemed to be working perfectly well at that moment so there was nothing they could do. By the time the problem was resolved she’d spent over 1000 euros on a clé 3G, on internet cafés, and calls to FT and Orange. She absolutely had to have internet access for her work. France Telecom offered her a refund of her subscription amounting to 180 euros and she’s currently discussing the issue with the ombudsman.

It’s not just France Telecom that has trouble providing a service in rural areas either. Electricity supply can be a patchy affair. The electricity tends to go off during a storm whether there’s rain or not. Sometimes it comes back on quietly, of its own accord. Once, the pole got struck by lightning and a squad of handsome men turned up like circus acrobats, with impressive gear – harnesses, ropes, power tools - and reconnected the supply within days. EDF just contacted me this week though, with a new problem. My electricity counter apparently hasn’t counted my electricity consumption since 2010. They’d continued to send me estimated bills all through 2011 and I’d continued to pay them. But when they sent a bloke to read the real figure in December 2011, it was the same number that showed in November 2010. The dial simply stopped turning a year ago. I was asked to call this number and that to have an engineer turn out and fix it. After a morning of getting nowhere, a young girl at EDF told me she couldn’t send a guy out because there was a general systems failure in the EDF offices. OK. So I wrote them a letter saying that when the current goes off it’s my problem but now the counter’s stopped turning it’s their problem. They can send an engineer whenever they like since the counter is outside the house. Voilà – and we’ll see how quickly they turn up to fix it.

Friends tell me that I’m quite wrong to think there’s anything particular about power and phone supplies in the countryside in Provence. One friend told me her boyfriend had a problem with his phone line and internet service last year and it was three full months before FT got it fixed. ”And think of where he lives” she said. Bang slap in the middle of Marseille. The second biggest city in France.