Monday, June 15, 2009

Rosy Goes to Lisieux


Lisieux, thanks to its Sainte Therèse, is a well-known town all round the world. It is also, as the local advertisements tell you, in large letters, ‘the Capital of the Pays d’Auge’. But for me, now, it’s the place where I first saw my mare, Rosy des Baux, run into the money.
The racetrack at Lisieux is a picturebook country venue: compact, neatly outlined with immaculate box hedges, with an incessantly groomed pink grit track of just under 1300 metres set in lawns and countryside as green as a parrot’s bottom. Just the kind of ‘hippodrome’ that I love the best.
Their ‘pre-school-holiday’ meeting was a twilight-evening affair, beginning at 6.30am under a rich summery sunshine, and ending at 10pm without the floodlights being needed. Rosy was in race seven, so we weren’t ‘on’ till 9.30.
This race was a bit more challenging than her previous ones. A stake of 12,000 euros and a field including some likely-looking four year-olds, including one by Love You. It was also to be Rosy’s first attempt at a distance of just under 2700 metres, and her first glimpse of the mobile start. A rehearsal at home didn’t go off too well, so Marion was up at sparrowfart in the morning re-shoeing her, and giving her some extra gate practice.
Happily, when it came to nitty gritty, Rosy turned up trumps. She shot from barrier four (of fourteen) at the autostart, straight to the lead. Luck, however, didn’t stay in her court. A wider horse, urged on suicidally by its driver, bullocked its way past her, and, having got to the front, slammed on the brakes to allow an even wider horse past. Rosy ended up three deep on the rails in a slow-paced first lap. She stayed there as they quickened down the back the second time, but as the runs started coming from behind, and the thing in front of her weakened logically, she was pushed inexorably back to the rear of the front bunch. They were into the straight, and the first three had gapped the field, before she got into the clear. But when she did, she put her back into it, emerging from the pack, and closing on the leaders all the way to the line. The third horse just held her out: she was a fine fourth. In the end, however, she was promoted to third (at 6.40 the place), when the second horse (the Love You!) was disqualified for incorrect gear. No messing about here. No $50 fines for infringements, as in New Zealand. Sin and it’s the chop.
So Rosy’s record now reads: six starts, one win, two placings, and some 8,900 euros in stake money, a record which with any luck should be positively added to over the months to come.
There’s no picture here of Rosy’s race, because you can’t watch a race through a camera lens, and I was here to watch! So instead here she is on her way to the start, and here too an action picture of Sierra des Baux, owner Jack Dowie, who came along to the track as well for a kind of dress-rehearsal before her raceday debut next week.

PS the photofinish is available, but barely..

Sunday, I added one more to my tally of French racetracks with a visit to Melnay-du-Maine, a town to the south of Laval and Le Mans (where the 24-hour race was being run). A sleek modern, black-cinder track for the trotters, some dinky box hedges for the steeplechasers, fine facilities and a pretty rural setting: one more splendid country-town venue with just one drawback: millions of little black flying insects. Oh, and the beer 40c dearer than at Lisieux. You can tell, it’s going to take quite something to knock Lisieux off the top of my hippodromic hit parade, and it won’t be this year because my French racegoing for June 2009 is done, and in a couple of days I head south to Couptrain. With very happy memories.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Farewell Fecamp, Hello horses

The seaside holiday is over.
One last camomile and Benedictine, courtesy of Marc, on the terrasse of Les Embruns, and it was time to bundle into the red Fiat Punto and head for the departement of l’Eure.
Fecamp has been great fun, and also definitely curative. Both Jean-Baptiste’s worst bronchials and what I politely call my Egyptian tummy (and the doctor calls amoebic dysentery) have been largely defeated by the breezes of the Normandy coast, and we arrived at Les Baux de Breteuil and the homestead of the family Hue a little enfeebled, perhaps, but in a decidedly better state than we left Paris. After a typically glorious welcome banquet – beginning with shrimps, continuing with (of course) horse, and terminating with a gallon of Calvados which is, I’m afraid, not imprinted on my memory – we awoke Sunday morning ready for the next part of life.
For Jean (and the Punto), that meant a return to Paris and the realities of the business world. We shall meet up again in August for more Paris and some Barcelona.
For me, it’s the peace and quiet of beautiful Les Baux, the magnificent menus that Theresa turns out unceasingly (last night it was home-made andouillette, believe that!!), the conviviality of family and horsey life, a little time with Rosy … and, of course, a few new adventures in the racing world.

Yesterday, in a drizzly greyness, we went to the Normandy countryside track of Bernay for a meeting consisting solely of claiming races. We were there with an unraced 3 year-old filly, Sainte des Baux, owned by Laura and David, which had qualified only a week earlier, but who we hoped might pick up a cheque or, better still, a buyer.

The clever girl did both. She finished on carefully and well to get beaten just a nose for second, and though she wasn’t claimed we didn’t bring her home. Soon after the race, a little gent with airs of Jimmy Cagney, with a posse of larger gents at his shoulders, hove by the truck. Even I could scent ‘trainer and owners’. And, sure enough, when they departed, Sainte went with them. A day’s work well done.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

By the (French) seaside

Jean-Baptiste loves the seaside
And I have only seen a tiny bit of what there is on the right hand side of the Manche.
So here we are.
I wasn’t quite at home in last year’s little peeps at Berck-sur-mer and Bray Dunes (in August) so this time we’ve tried something of a slightly different style (in June). We started off with the little village of Wissant. It’s a nice little village, quiet and not internationally commercialised, set on the sweeping sands between Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez., the splendid views of both of which we visited (by car), the one in sunshine the other at sunset. We peeked at the pebbly beach, sheltered behind a necessary windbreak for a cup of hot chocolate on the seafront, watching a dozen veliplanchistes scooting through the waves, and consumed some micro-mussels and slightly soggy chips in a bistro. There was a pleasant little morning market, too. But, oh dear, ‘commercial’ and ‘professional’ are not the same thing and we hit a very, very curious place in the way of accommodation. We were one of two couples in the extensive ‘annexe’ of the hotel ‘Le Vivier’. Fine bed, linen, bathroom, breakfast, even quite a pretty view of the sea, but .. décor difficult to sleep inside, atmosphere nil, advertised wifi non-existent and, worst of all, service zero. If I say we waited two hours at an unmanned reception desk to pay our bill (having decided to exit after just one night) all is said. Wissant is a nice enough place, but steer clear of Le Vivier.

Rather disconsolately, we looked at the map and the various dots on the coast heading south. I’d heard of Etretat (it has a race course), and also the nearby Fécamp, an ex-fishing port, so ultimately we opted for that. We arrived in Fécamp yesterday afternoon, and all I need say is, we are spending our remaining seaside days right here.

A nice middle-sized pebbly beach with little boats, attractive cliffs, a handful of not-too-breezy waterfront cafes, and the ancient Hotel de l’Angleterre, where we are comfortably installed on the top floor (with sea view and impeccable wifi) under the care of two delightful French ladies. Fecamp is not too big nor too small, not too posh nor too ‘popular’, it is calm (well, in June, anyway) and friendly and just … nice.

Last night we supped opposite the sea, on fish soup (me) and proper juicy moules a la Cauchoise (J-B), the delicious speciality of Marc, the owner of the Café Les Embruns which, need I say, is ‘Highly Recommended’. So ‘highly recommended’ that I include its photo (that’s me in the middle, with Marc and Mme Marc).

This morning we visited the ‘Palais Benedictine’, a few blocks inland. It's an amazing place, a neo-Gothic fantasy built in the last years of the 1800s by a man whose name translates as ‘Alexander the Great’, who had decided to commercialise the 27-herb brew of the monks, and thus invented the ‘B&B’. This fairytale castle holds a 'model' distillery, plus exhibitions of art ancient and modern, and a charming artistic and hands-on exhibition (‘Parcours d’essences’) of the various things that go into the making of Benedictine. For your 6.50 you even get a little glass of iced Benedictine! A jewel of an 'exhibition'. OK. A top-notch publicity production.

Although we’d more or less decided to stay in Fécamp, Etretat and its famous cliff gate – only 16km distant -- had to be checked out, so thence we headed. It’s definitely picturesque, the famous cliff (which we duly climbed it to its very peak) is definitely notable, and you couldn’t possibly deny that the town has character by the megaton. In the days when rather less of a town was squeezed into its narrow streets (today’s traffic can barely move) it must have been delicious. It is still delightful. In June. I’d hate to see it in August. And I think I’d have liked it enormously in 1880.

And now we’re back in Fécamp. Jean has gone for a paddle, and I‘m blogging … and soon it will be time to dress for dinner at the seaside…

Footnote: after apéritif chez Marc, we are on the terrasse at our hotel where we have just consumed absolutely first-class crepes. J-B, who knows about these things, says his (he had seconds!) was the best, most sophisticated crêpe au Gré du Vent he has ever eaten.

Fecamp can do nothing wrong!

Double footnote: Yes, it can. Today I broke my titanium glasses frames and we managed to find a distinctly ordinary lunch. However, a visit to the Mariners' Church of Notre Dame de Sauveur, perched on the cliffs alongside some important and more-interesting-than-usual WW2 blockhouses and bunkers, and another to the stunning and genuinely gothic Abbiate cathedral compensated. Sigh. Nothing is perfect.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Paris-Lille-Amiens-et puis?

Yes, I’m on the move.
Starting with the move to chez Jean-Baptiste in the Paris 10ème a couple of weeks back (was it?). It was kind of like ‘coming home’ ... but, alas, this year, ‘home’ was more like a nursing home. Jean was just starting to mend from a really bad bout of bronchitis and I alas (it has now been confirmed) am in the thrall of some nasty oriental parasite or amoeba, picked up on the ship. However, let it not be said that we cowered in bed. Well, not that much. You can’t be in Paris and stay in bed. Well, not that much. So we hit the cafes and the restaurants, we walked again in the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, we visited the Musée Carnavalet, we went late-night partying way out beyond Montmartre and J-B hosted a dinner party for six in our little living room. And on May 29 we hit the road north.
Highlights of the week: easily the best restaurant, the Sainte-Marthe, situated in a peaceful little square just near the flat. A glorious meal of lamb and a serenade from four capable musicians calling themselves Opus 4. They deserved a tip just for carrying the double bass about. Anyway, all my stars for Sainte-Marthe
Encounter with Ken Bloom and Barry Kleinwort, here in Paris to do a show with Christophe. We have known each other by name for 35 years ... and we finally get to meet in a Paris bar!
The Carnavalet: I’m not a great museum and gallery man, but this one I really enjoyed. It’s the museum ‘of Paris’ and filled with (amongst others) the most wonderful C19th paintings of the city. A must for any visitor.
The wine. France is appallingly dear (you won’t get a round of small beers and Cocas in a café for less than $40) … but not for wine! I’ve been able to drown myself in the most splendid grand cru wines for $20 a bottle. And, yes, of course I have.
But in the end, it all comes down to the folk one meets. Especially the new folk. I’ve meet a heap. Benoit, our party-host, a sparkle-eyed lad who beds three women a night and makes his debut next week in drag cabaret, Catherine, gentle-voiced academic reseacher and indefatigable walker, Sandra the vibrant maquilleuse with her Penelope Keith English and her determination to be a writer, Marion, at 23 already on the way to being an opera singer (we had Manon Lescaut at midnight), Laurence the budding journalist, professor Fredéric and Marion (and I didn’t get to meet their baby Chloe) …
and a very special mention for Dr Martine D***, of Le Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, the sort of Doctor everyone longs to have … merci, Madame, and I hope these bloody pills do the job quickly!

We hit the road north on 29 May with intent. Following Mdlle Rosy des Baux. And here we are in Lille, back in the wonderfully hospitable arms of dear friend Didier. If you look at last year’s blog, you will see my panegyric on Didier’s cooking and above all the incomparable rabbit he cooked especially for me…
And when we rolled into le Vieux Lille on Friday night .. there it was! The white tablecloth, impeccably laid and … a huge and wondrous dish of rabbit! Three helpings later (yes, I know I have tummy problems and I know that at best I’m a tiny eater), I was deep in the land of gastronomic grace.
Saturday was devoted to a voyage to Amiens (a good hour and a half each way) to see Rosy run. I hardly recognised my little filly, she is now a decidedly strong-looking mare. She went out third favourite for her race, and after two infuriating false starts (by others), got away well on the inside. She was three back on the rail when the field tightened and she galloped. That, of course, is disqualification. Disappointing, but watching her run on thereafter I have no doubt that in the months to come she will do something. I’m very happy with my French baby.

And so, back to Lille …
I’m falling heavily for Lille. Old Lille anyway. Its beautiful, its big enough and not too big, it’s full of life and things happening (look at this picture, of an exposition of black plastic angel-devils in the main street), and yet it’s not too loud, not too ‘city’. And I’m not even going to mention the food and wine … oh! the Market de Place du Concert of the Vieux Lille! As I write, Didier is just back from the market, and tonight we are going to eat rascasse au four a la Corse, des bouquets de crevettes mayonnaise maison, and the cheeses .. Vieux Lille, aka Gris de Lille ou Le Pur, Boulettes d’Avenes …

O! Gerry Bordman, you who twenty years ao accused me of not appreciating food. Well, my dear friend, I might not have then, but I sure as Hell do now!

And tomorrow is Wissant. I know, I‘m moving too fast. Each year, I say I will slow down .. but for the moment, it’s Monday, it’s Lille and there is divine rascasse for dinner.