17 Dec 2009

Chez Robert

I have mentioned Monsieur Robert Miquel and his village butcher shop before – and have been curious to know more about him and the history of the butcher shop in Bize.

M. Robert is retiring on 31st December this year, so I thought if I didn’t do something about talking to him soon, then the opportunity may be lost.

I was kindly helped (translation and setting up the meeting) by my friend Miki Bowditch who lives in the village. He speaks French fluently, at a level I can only aspire to!

M. Robert kindly invited us into his home and kept us entertained for some time.

He told us that the building itself has been a butcher shop since approximately 1760, and that he is the fifth generation of his family to be a butcher.

The good news here is that the family line will continue – his niece Claudine Bandinelli has worked in the shop for a long time.

She recently graduated from her studies in Lezignan, and will be taking over when M. Robert retires, and so she will become the sixth generation to continue the family trade.

In his time, back in the 1920s, there were four butchers in Bize. For the last twenty years, Chez Robert’s has been the only one in the village. Walking into the shop is like walking back in time – small low doorway leading off a narrow street in the old centre of the village (Bize was once a walled village), there’s an old and worn chopping block, wooden panelled doors on the cool rooms and dried sausages hanging from hooks along the wall.

Speaking of sausages, M. Robert makes his own fresh sausages – he tells us that the recipe is his grandmother’s and the secret is to use good ingredients. I can vouch for the pork sausages – they’re delicious, and a firm favourite for BBQ’s in the summer.

M.Robert and his sister, Mme. Bandinelli.

During World War II, the government controlled the supply of meat, with only beef being given to Robert’s father. The beef was distributed to the villagers in exchange for ration stamps, 100g per person per week. However, veal, pork, mutton and chickens were also sometimes available, obtained by ‘other methods’ and distributed in the ‘normal’ way!

Throughout the year, you can always find fruit and vegetables of some variety for sale, in boxes on the windowsill outside the shop. These are surplus vegetables from friends, family and clients of M. Robert which he sells at a very good price. Not part of his business, but a way for people to earn a little extra.

And I can say from first hand experience, these are the freshest and best vegetables you can buy – the broad beans that can be found in season are divine. They never make it to the pot – always eaten raw in this house!

M. Robert totally agrees with me about eating them raw – though he insists they’re best either eaten with a good garlic vinaigrette made with healthy olive oil, or else simply dipped in salt.

From 1970 to 1999, M. Robert belonged to the Maxi Majorettes (cheerleaders) of Bize-Minervois – a group of men from both Bize and Mailhac who made between five and six floats for the Bize Carnaval held every February.

They dressed up in skirts (Major-ettes!), wore make-up for the occasion and marched through the village with all the other floats that made up the cavalcade.

The Majorettes used to be invited to do openings at football matches and various other events.
They performed for sporting events as far afield as Perpignan and Bordeaux.
They also performed at various ferias in the region (festivals in this part of France, usually including bull fighting), including once at the famous Roman arena in Nîmes.

In the 1960’s, he also did theatre in the Occitan language. He is a fluent speaker of Occitan – and when I asked him how he learned it, he said he grew up with it being spoken all around him, especially by the older folk.

One of his theatre performances was “Los Profitaires” in which he played the part of the avocat (lawyer), Maitre Fort Bec (Mr. Strong Mouth).

M. Robert is also a keen singer with a fantastic voice – if you’re lucky, you can find him in his shop singing opera. He used to sing in a choral group with about 40 members - again from both Bize and Mailhac. They called themselves “Les Fils d’Argent” (Silver Strands).

They were a popular group and used to sing at parties and in restaurants, singing and doing little sketches. In one year alone, they did 49 gigs.

His involvement with the choral group was during the years that he was also active with the Maxi Majorettes. He wonders how he ever had enough hours in the day, given that he was also working 7 days a week in the shop. He recalls that on Sundays, he used to leave home without eating lunch, to go and join the group for practice.

Early in the new year, the shop itself and the rooms behind will be renovated and modernised. So I’m delighted that I’ve been able to speak to M. Robert, take some photos of him and his shop and get a bit of his own history.

When asked what he planned to do when he retires, he said – ‘Go fishing’……

Merci M. Robert for your time, and very good wishes for a happy retirement.

14 Dec 2009

Language class

I decided to give myself an early Christmas present a few weeks ago …. a week-long course in Montpellier of intensive French classes. I’m not sure it was much of a ‘present’ – it was fairly hard going, but I chose to do two afternoons of a cooking class at a local restaurant as an optional extra.

What can I say – it was intensive, but fortunately classes were held only in the mornings, with the afternoons free – to recuperate! And Montpellier is a fairly special city to do it in. I have to say it’s my favourite city in France, though I haven’t visited many.

It’s obviously the favourite city of many others too – it’s the fastest growing city in France and the one that most French people (according to a recently published survey) say they would like to move to.

Christmas tree in the Place de la Comedie, Montpellier
A side street off the beautiful Rue de l'ancien Courrier, Montpellier
Dog inside a jewellry store

It really did feel like being back at school again – most of the students were in their early twenties, and from many different countries (Saudi Arabia, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Japan – and these are just the very few people I met).

However, there were a couple of people in my class of 5 who were closer to my age, which was very reassuring.

I'd like to think I'm now beyond making dreadful blunders, but I think not.

But I have to say, the highlight of the exercise was the cooking class at Msr Lyachi’s restaurant - Le Jardin des Pâtes.

Msr Lyachi and me (looking a little apprehensive) -
peering over our respective specs ....

So, while I’m not sure whether there’s much improvement in my French, my one week away in Montpellier has given me the impetus to continuing learning the language and to keep experimenting with new ideas in the kitchen. Let’s see how it all pans out!

And back here in Bize, the weather has finally turned. After months of unseasonal balmy weather, we’re in the middle of a cold snap, with a few flurries of snow today, and the outlook is more of the same.

There’s not been enough snow to stay on the ground, but certainly the temperature is way down there! So today’s activities have been somewhat centred around the fire.

Recently though, there has been a bit of activity at Nic’s – painting.

Indigo is very industrious and loves helping and so she joined in with much enthusiasm. Not only does she like to get stuck in with the painting side of things, she’s always enjoyed cooking. So she whipped up a batch of biscuits and brought them upstairs to share with us before getting well and truly dressed for the occasion, and mucking in ……. and I have to say she did a good job on the end of the roller.

And surprisingly, for a kid of her age, she didn’t get sick of it after 5 minutes. She was up for the same on day two!

Moving sideways

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